In honor of Litmus Press’ forthcoming collection of Leonard Schwartz interviews with female poets, we will offer an ongoing series of transcribed talks from Schwartz’s “Cross-Cultural Poetics” archives. This month we focus on poets’ innovative publishing projects.
Interview with Ammiel Alcalay and Ana Bozičević from CCP Episode #240: Around Town. November 10, 2011. Transcribed by Kelly Bergeron.
Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guests on the phone from New York, I’m very happy to say, are Ammiel Alcalay and Ana Bozičević. The two of them are editing a series of chapbooks and books coming out of City University of New York. The series is called Lost & Found, and it’s devoted to The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, as in Donald Allen’s anthology. I’ll ask them both to say a little bit more about that concept. Let me say first: Ammiel Alcalay is a poet, author of numerous works including neither wit nor gold published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and the forthcoming A Little History. He’s a return guest to the program, having spoken about his major work of cultural criticism, After Jews and Arabs, in the past. Ana Bozičević is a graduate student at CUNY and a poet, author of Stars of the Night Commute, Tarpaulin Sky Press, and the editor of The Mysteries of Vision: Some Notes on H.D., Diane di Prima’s work, that’s part of the Lost & Found CUNY poetics series. Welcome Ammiel and Ana. Great to have you both on the phone, to have recently met you, Ana, in New York, and Ammiel, to continue our conversation forthwith. Can you say a little bit about this project of bringing out these documents and texts largely associated with the New American Poetry from the 1950’s forward: the Black Mountain School, the New York School, the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Berkley Renaissance, all those major movements in American, avant-garde poetry that this series is devoted to the elucidation of?
Ammiel Alcalay: Yes. I’ll say a couple of things, since, you know, having been academically trained as a medievalist, I found when I’ve been teaching 20th century things that students, it seems to me, need to know more, and one of the ways to know more is to get into archives and do some textual scholarship, and to ignore the codification of general schools, which don’t really seem to reflect the reality of how people related to each other, to what was in people’s spheres. So one of things that I’ve emphasized in this whole project, is for students to follow a person, see who they pay attention to, see who they correspond with, see who they are angry at, see whom they ignore. And try to build the world that they’re in. And then all of a sudden things become very different. You begin to see people who, if one had read current histories, one wouldn’t think even related to each other, had anything to do with each other. And all of a sudden you find out they had a correspondence, they’re angry at each other, or they’re in love with each other, many things come out that wouldn’t have come out. And in addition to that there is a stress on the thought of these poets. That because of the nature of the Cold War and the structure of academia, that these poets took on thinking that was unavailable in discrete fields. And so for somebody like Diane di Prima, we don’t think of her as a thinker because we haven’t seen her lectures published, which are vast, and erudite, and amazing. And so, you know, it’s taking the so-called New American Poetry as a nexus point, and also thinking of befores and afters, as I say in the boiler plate material, precursors and followers, as well.
LS: Intriguing. I mean these are the poets that many of us return to and return to, in terms of that first grouping that Donald Allen anthologized in The New American Poetry: 45-60. And that second grouping, the postmoderns, as he called it, which I believe includes Diane di Prima, whose name you just mentioned a moment ago. So this is kind of like the glory period in American poetry and to be able to do this kind of scholarship, archival work, in relationship to our own poetic investigations and pursuits, well, it’s really valuable to many of us. Bob Holman writes, “These books that you folks are publishing are gems. The idea is genius.” So I wondered if you could say or give us some sense of how the process actually works between archive and literary value. Say for example, in the case of Diane di Prima. You’ve published The Mysteries of Vision: Some Notes on H.D., by Diane di Prima, and also R.D.’s H.D. (on Robert Duncan’s H.D. book, which happily is finally in print from University of California Press). This too then, R.D.’s H.D. lecture by Diane di Prima. Say a little bit, Ana or Ammiel, about how the process works… How you find an archival item long since out of print, if it ever was in print, and prepare it for publication.
AA: Let me say a couple general things about it and then Ana can speak directly to the experience that we had working on Diane. I think each project really has a completely different point of initiation; they are very personal, they come out of people’s interest. People are drawn to certain things. They begin to discover them. This has been the case on upcoming projects on John Wieners, on Michael Rumaker, on Lorine Niedecker, and so in that sense each of the books has a very unique set of issues, and a very unique set of editing questions, and structural questions. So maybe Ana could say something about how we got to the di Prima material, and decided to work on it.
Ana Bozičević: Well, the unique part of working with the Diane di Prima material was that Diane is here, so it wasn’t a matter of working with somebody’s estate or legacy as archived or processed after their death. The poet was here and alive and very engaged. Our collaboration started with Ammiel’s choice of several lectures that we reviewed, and then decided on the material that would be most immediately necessary to be made available. I got in touch with her, and we began this lengthy, wonderful correspondence that continues to this day. She worked very actively with me on annotating the material. This was a lecture; it was published in the 80’s by a small press in California and had very quickly gone out of print. So we worked not with a handwritten document, but with an already printed book that we reset, researched lengthily and annotated. And obviously this is about H.D., as well. A lot of the research was about H.D., and trying to process the way Diane processes her, so it’s kind of a train of refractions from one artist to another. And something that Diane says in her lecture is she encourages us as we read H.D., she says, “in reading a poem we can do no better than follow the often repeated axiom of one of her teachers to stay with the feeling, else we are likely to lose the artist in a thicket of ideologies not her own.” And this is something that really happens both with H.D. and Diane because, outside all of the characterizations of H.D. as a modernist, and Diane as a Beat chick, or whatever, suddenly these two artists emerge almost as strangers, as somebody we are encountering for the first time.
AA: And to emphasize how each project takes on a life of its own and has its own issues: the one that I worked on, R.D’s H.D., was a talk given in memoriam for Robert Duncan in relationship to New College, and I realized nobody had actually written even a succinct encyclopedia entry, kind of basic informational piece on New College. Who started it? How long did it last? How did it operate? So that became part of my introduction. So each of these, you know, ends up, even in very recent history, tackling something that one assumes might be known, but when you actually look, there is actually no reliable information. So that has been part of the scaffolding and the framing of these pieces— where do they fit? What context did they come out of? What kinds of things are they saying?
LS: Ana, in your afterword to The Mysteries of Vision: Some Notes on H.D., you write:
And yet, as di Prima herself notes, the “seen” is never as simple as what we see; matter is mysterious. The Elizabethan scientist and occultist John Dee—a source of spiritual and poetic nourishment to H.D., Robert Duncan, and other mystic-minded modernists—endeavored to transcribe an angelical language, the mythical ur-tongue used to create the world and call things and creatures into being.
In a project as material as this, you are working through archival documents, you are working through texts that have been lost and had a desire to find them again. If you could say a little bit about the relationship between the invisible and matter, or let’s say the relationship between poetry and history that you uncover, as you do archival work in the name of the poem.
AB: I mean as soon as you start talking about archives there is a mystical element to it because the archive is obviously this depository of wisdom that has to be accessed either with guidance of the “archon”—Derrida’s angel of the archive, or some sort of secret password, or through erudition. So as soon as you start talking about archives, there is an element of interpretation and the matter of the archive is this sediment that is deposited and you need to bring back to life, through, again, your own work. To me at least, there is almost an alchemical element of taking this to uninitiated eyes, dead matter of the archive, these layers of the archive and trying to interpret them and bring them back to life. Obviously with Diane, again, she was there, so she speaks herself, and for herself. And the book itself is very much about this, as well, because it is about her relationship with H.D. and about H.D.’s relationship with time. And both of them speak about mystical experiences, about these moments out of time, when the artist is able to escape the linearity of existence and have these experiences and visions, and visionary imaging that’s not necessarily bound to rational thought or materiality. So the whole process was very much about that, as well.
AA: I want to go back to the question of materiality and what I think of really as an ethics of scholarship, and the root word relates to haunts, to an actual place of ethics—ethos. One of the things that always struck me was somewhere in a letter to Merton Sealts, a Melville scholar, Charles Olson is just kind of enraged at people who are making a living off this dead body, of Melville, and not respecting that body. And so for me, the non-material aspects of this kind of work has to do really with human relationships and with putting students in a position where they might be challenged in ways, that they are going to have to rely on things that they haven’t learned in books, about how to respond to family members, to a situation that might be uncomfortable for somebody. And this has happened over and over again, and it’s incredibly heartening to see this happen. I mean in the case of Diane it was very direct. But in other projects, we have somebody now working, Megan Paslawski, who is working with Mike Rumaker, who’s about 80, and to see that relationship develop is incredible. Josh Schneiderman, who worked on the Koch and O’Hara letters, was dealing with Karen Koch, Kenneth’s widow, and with Maureen O’Hara, Frank’s sister, and really had to win their respect by his authentic love of the work. So that’s a huge aspect. Bill Rukeyser, we’ve done two Rukeyser projects and Muriel Rukeyser’s son, Bill, has been extraordinarily generous and moved by the work he’s seen. So that, to me, is a key element of creating real human bonds between these people, which is where transmission really lies.
LS: It is by human action that the poem is remembered or fails to be passed on, so to take that work on is really crucial. Ammiel, I was going to mention Charles Olson. You mentioned him ahead of me. But I think of Charles Olson as very important to you specifically, and Olson, of course, is a poet for whom the poem is a kind of document, right? The Maximus poems are documenting something about Gloucester, or about whaling in the 19th century, or about… So that sense of poetry and documentation runs the parallel between poetry and document, runs deep for you, doesn’t it?
AA: Very much so. But also I think specifically in this case of the series. One of the things that are going to keep coming out for some time are the Charles Olson Memorial Lectures, that Robert Creeley had instituted at Buffalo, which seems to me to be a kind of dead sea scrolls of poetics. A kind of, you know, at that point in the 80’s when those were given, Olson was very much on the outs in many ways, and new things were coming in, and it seemed like a bunch of old guys, you know, talking about Olson. But I think that, for instance, the Robert Duncan lecture that we published is a very key text for Duncan himself, and upcoming we are going to have Lindsey Freer, who has been working on transcribing Ed Dorn’s Olson Memorial Lectures, and I think they are very key documents to see how people related to this huge figure that had been so crucial in the 50’s, 60’s, until his death. And what happens afterward and where that might be some other direction, where a poetics might feed from and take off from.
LS: I’m thinking still though about The Mysteries of Vision: Some Notes on H.D. by Diane di Prima. Ana, you quote from Diane di Prima:
If you condition yourself to approach the mythology /
poetry in words
& the material
on which they are inscribed
like you would a tree
or a rock
or a god
then you will have directed yrsself toward the future.
And you comment on this:
I hope readers will use these Notes as they were written in the context of di Prima’s class: as seeds and springboards into further exploration, as an entrée into R.D.’s H.D., into Duncan’s The H.D. Book.
I guess what I want to ask Ana and Ammiel both, is your sense of myth. The term myth is approached or discussed in that passage. Myth has something to do with history and passing something on. Myth has something to do with poetry and its ritual and aesthetic function. I wondered if you could say to what extent Lost & Found is a kind of myth-making as well, as scholarship and literary production.
AB: Well, I think that Lost & Found is more myth-busting than myth-making.
AB: At least that’s how I understand it.
LS: Could you say more about that, as a way of piercing the myths?
AB: Sure. My relationship to American poetry is quite interesting because I come from a different country. So I actually had a crash course in American poetry in the last five years, and I was in some ways innocent of its characterizations and how people are grouped. I hadn’t really encountered the dogma before, the way the institution archives itself: it was in many ways a closed system and it was hard to deal with these poets on their own terms, because not only do you experience our contemporary groupings of poets—everything seems to be very charted for something that has happened so recently, like the work of these poems, it seems almost too coded already. Why this quote about material seems important is because, as Ammiel said, these are people, who are writing things, who are doing the work, and often explicitly in response to something. It’s important to get back to the basics in some ways and see what they are doing, and see them as people who have their own lineage, and to explore that lineage outside of the categories that they are grouped in right now. I think it’s very easy to build myths, especially as someone is getting into older age or if someone’s passed away. All we have is myths and the person is the thing that’s lost. So I think especially since there is an ephemeral aspect to these books, it’s really, for me at least, more of an attempt to capture that ephemera, and provide a different perspective on these people—on these poets as people. Just in case it ends up mattering.
LS: So Ammiel, on that issue of myth?
AA: You know, having Ana around has been tremendous in the sense of, because of how she came into this material, always pulling it to some fresh direction. In fact, one of the great things about teaching in this context for me has been… I mean, I had started to write my introduction to R.D.’s H.D. and then I read Ana’s, and I threw mine out because I really felt like she was hitting something that was very expressive and useful and I wanted to go there, or attempt to go there. And I think that, not myth-making, and perhaps not even myth-busting, but mapping—you know, re-mapping, going back to Olson and geography. What is the geography? What is the terrain of this world that we think we know? And actually it’s continually being known again. I think this is part of an effort, and one that I hope would be, not in any sense copied, but taken as seed, emulated, taken in its own direction, taken wherever people feel it needs to be taken.
LS: Certainly in the poets themselves: in Diane di Prima, in Robert Duncan, in H.D., in most of the poets we’re talking about there is a lively interest in myth. And so to think about the necessary distance one needs from that work, if one’s sort of myth-busting or de-certifying the myth, but also to think about the way in which the poetry itself is dependent or arguing for certain notions of myth. Obviously it is complex… Blaser has The Holy Forest, the forest of language. I see a real thicket of issues there pertaining to myth itself, which leads me to what was a big discovery for me, which was that Jack Spicer has a translation of Beowulf. And you’ve published it. Part one, part two—two separate editions of Jack Spicer’s Beowulf. Who knew? Well, probably other people knew. But I didn’t know that Jack Spicer had a translation of Beowulf. Could you comment on that and that text?
AA: It’s really thrilling. This was a one-time, unique, possibly future collaboration with two grad students from SUNY Buffalo, and enabled and facilitated by Steve McCaffery, the Gray Professor there who helped out. I had been hearing about this for a long time and knew of it through various Spicer things and his study with Ernst Kantorowicz, and then his study of Old English. And it’s an extraordinary thing to have, and I think the accompanying essays are illuminating by David Hadbawnik and Sean Reynolds. We had one of our own students, Emily Sherwood, who is a medievalist and an early modern person, work on it with them, as well. It brings out things in Spicer that haven’t really been thought of and discussed, and I think it really presents a new possibility for thinking about Spicer, and thinking about language, and thinking about all of the staple Spicerian things, the furniture in the room, the Martians, you know, etc., but in a very different context of Old English and the weirdness of Old English, and yet its familiarity.
LS: You refer, of course, to the sense that the Martians were dictating the poems to him. We do have his new collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me, recently published by Wesleyan University Press.
AA: Leonard —the one thing that I would add is, part of this process has also been to create a different model for archival work, because archival work has so much been a kind of secretive, you know, I found this thing and I’m hiding it until it can come out. So we’ve got a lot of collaboration going on. When people are going to an archive, they’ll tell others, and say, can I get you something? And then when I go to this place, I’ll get this for you, and that has filtered off into the executors, as well. We’ve had tremendous corporation from Mary Margaret Sloan and Christopher Wagstaff at the Duncan estate, from Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi at the Spicer estate, from so many people, who have just opened themselves up to this work, and are very eager and helpful, so that has been a huge, huge, element of this, too.
LS: I should say then that Lost & Found the series, this is all happening at the Center for the Humanities, at the Graduate Center, at the City University of New York. I believe there is a website where one could find more information on all the titles you’ve been publishing. Anne Waldman says about the series, “Such a great pleasure to read these beautiful reclamations of mind and time and place.” So the project of reclamation, the archive in the open air as opposed to buried in the stacks someplace. Ana Bozičević, can you say a last thought, or a little bit more about the process from your point of view? You’re working toward your PhD at CUNY, and involved with the Center for the Humanities, and Lost & Found, and this project. Last thought on the meaning of the project?
AB: Well, for me, the experience here at the Grad Center and the experience with this project has been really akin to the Whalen quote that I mention in the afterword to the end of the Diane di Prima book, which is the ancient definition of academy, “as a walking grove of trees.” So it never has felt like academy in the dogmatic sense, as it is sometimes interpreted. It really has felt like being out in nature among the trees of thought, so I think that’s my impression. I hope that I can continue strolling with Ammiel, and Diane, and everyone else.
LS: In that holy forest that Blaser talks about, that’s fantastic! Ammiel, any reflections on the experience?
AA: I would just like to add that there are all kinds of spin-offs on this as well: estate issues are being settled or worked on; book projects are coming out of this. Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, who worked on the Rukeyser material, found in the Library of Congress an unpublished typescript of a novel by Rukeyser, a Spanish Civil War novel that The Feminist Press is going to publish next year. We’re working with City Lights on a Michael Rumaker project for next year, as well. So there are a lot of things that will kind of re-inhabit the space, I think, and present different ways of looking at this period in, you know, a very crucial period in U.S. culture, in North American culture, and hopefully, you know, begin a way of talking about it differently, thinking about it differently, and inhabiting it differently.
LS: It is true that there is sometimes a nostalgia for the Beats, or nostalgia for that period in the 50’s, and that’s not good. Nostalgia isn’t going to keep an active relationship to the work and to what it might mean as seeds to the future, Ana as you put it. But Lost & Found is very good because it is a hard-headed scholarly way of presenting the work, but not so hard-headed as to be impermeable, right? These are things that pass through our minds when we read the scholarship you’ve presented by making these texts available to us again, sometimes for the first time, sometimes for the first time in many, many, years. So Ammiel, Ana, thank you so much for coming to the phone in New York today and talking to us about the project.
AA: Thank you.
AB: Thank you, Leonard.
LS: We’ve been speaking with Ana Bozičević and Ammiel Alcalay about Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. They’ve published two series of chapbooks, the most recent back in Spring of 2011. You can find work by Diane Di Prima, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Margaret Randall, Philip Whalen, Amiri Baraka, Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley, others that I’m leaving out at the moment, but I do recommend the work they are publishing highly.
Ammiel Alcalay recent books include Islanders (City Lights), and neither wit nor gold: from then (Ugly Duckling). A new book of essays, a little history, and a 10th anniversary reprint of from the warring factions are due in Fall 2012.
Ana Božičević is the author of Stars of the Night Commute (Fall 2009) and the forthcoming Rise in the Fall (Fall 2012). She works and studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where she helps run Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative and the Annual Chapbook Festival, and co-chairs the Transculturations Seminar. She is also an award-winning translator. With Amy King, she edits esque.
Lost & Found, Series 3, available this fall, features a facsimile edition of Lorine Niedecker’s Homemade Poems; a Langston Hughes/Nancy Cunard Spanish Civil War project; the correspondence of John Wieners & Charles Olson; lectures by Diane di Prima and Ed Dorn, and selected letters by Michael Rumaker and Joanne Kyger.