Poetry@The_Millennium: A Conversation with Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris
Poetry@The_Millennium: A Conversation with Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris
A conversation with Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg on the technology and politics of the millenial anthology.
This interview took place soon after the University of California Press published Volume One of Poems For The Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern amp; Postmodern Poetry, Vol. 1 (From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude) [Rothenberg, Jerome and Joris, Pierre, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995]. Jerome Rothenberg is one of the world’s leading anthologists. Among his more than sixty books of poetry and numerous anthologies are Technicians of the Sacred, Revolution of the Word, and Shaking the Pumpkin. He is Professor of Visual Arts and Literature at the University of California, San Diego. Pierre Joris has published more than twenty books of poetry, several anthologies, and numerous volumes of translations. He is Professor of English at the University at Albany-SUNY. Rothenberg’s aamp; Joris’s previous collaboration pppppp: Selected Writings of Kurt Schwitters (Temple University Press, 1993) was awarded the 1994 PEN Center USA West Literary Award for Translation. The interview, conducted by Chris Funkhouser, took place at Pierre Joris’ home in Albany, New York, December 1995.
Chris Funkhouser: The reason I have some of these questions is because of the event a few nights ago, the EPCLIVE chat about your anthology, on the Internet Relay Channel (IRC). I have some questions about the anthology which I didn’t have a chance to ask you then. The first thing relates to the fact that my copy of the anthology came the week that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I was thinking, through your book, you’re drawing the world’s literatures and cultures together through English, through the page. Yet it’s still really a greatly conflictive and angry world with a lot of division. Despite the destruction of such symbols as the Berlin Wall, we still have a popular media which celebrates divisions, perpetuates violence in a way which poetry laments. I’m wondering how the strife, and succession of diplomatic tragedies impinges upon work such as this anthology. Though it might seem like a naive question, I’m wondering if you see any role poetry might play in terms of some kind of international relations? Or, is poetry present to be just politely distantly “contrastive” to unfortunate “human” predicaments?
Jerome Rothenberg: Well, I don’t know if politely contrastive is right. Certainly, there’s a feeling that many of us have, that poetry is somehow “contrastive”: a way of being and speaking that marks a difference-and a resistance. In the second volume [of the anthology], even more than the first, we’ll be using terms like “resistance,” picking up from a [Charles] Olson essay on poetry as a form of resistance, post- World War Two, coming to it in that way. So the contrastive is a contrast by resistance. But, it’s very complicated out there, also, so in terms of the initial question, of whether things are brought together or are seen in their separate identities, obviously there’s a lot of fluctuation for any of us. That is, we presumably don’t want to bring things together into such a unanimous, single, entity that the individual differences (what makes for their distinctiveness) then disappear. To speak even in trite terms (as we often do) about the unity of all living beings (and so on) is, well, problematic. I mean, the real question is how to do that without imperializing it in some way or another, so that there are no longer differences, those differences which, of course, also have value? At the same time, one is both trying to stress difference and to somehow make it a difference that doesn’t end up in ethnic cleansing.
Pierre Joris: Ethnic cleansing is of course that totalitarian attempt to do away with difference, it is the One that pathologically refuses the many. Certainly poetry has some kind of role, however limited, to play, in pointing out, even in creating a place, a field - in Duncan’s sense, where the many can co-exist. You need difference to make it an interesting place- anything kinetic, i.e. any movement, anything negentropic happens only when there is a difference, a departure from equilibrium, from the same, thus a clinamen. That it always become something else: if you have only the one, you have only a kind of death, because you have no multiplication. You have nothing. I think in terms of poetry or poetics you could even, then, talk of, say, how poetry by field, composition by field, is a kind of map where this multiplicity, the many, can come in and be in a field that is not necessarily an arena of conflict. So that would be a kind of mapping of some of those questions. But poetry is not going to directly solve any of the questions.
Funkhouser: It’s like you can’t impose a heterogeneity, yet that’s sort of an over-arching project?
Rothenberg: Well, obviously, the kind of question that you raise could be raised about other forms of activity besides poetry. Or, it could be raised more generally as a great, extremely important political and social question. Even if one doesn’t bring art or poetry into it at all. What is a humanity in relation to which there can be crimes against it? What is a crime against humanity? It implies some notion of a humanity that can be abused in all of us-not as a generality but specifically in its particulars…as an individual but also as an ethnic entity. There’s no question that the book tries to emphasize, to foreground some of that as a tension that poetry also in some sense addresses. I don’t know if it sets itself off differently in the United States than elsewhere. This is a peculiar place, the United States: it’s a colonized place at its inception and grows out of that. It’s created at the expense of a given series of nations that lived here to start with.
Joris: But every place on the globe is like that. Is colonized by humans, who in their turn over time get invaded, displaced, wiped out, amalgamated, reconfigured and so on.
Rothenberg: But in the United States the Conquest-the colonization-was followed by a period of opening. The conquered land was opened to a multiplicity of peoples. Not always and not equally but with a lot of stops and starts. Obviously, at a certain point, there was open migration into the country, open borders. Around 1920, the borders were shut, you got a closed door policy. After the second world war, the borders were opened up again-or opened up a little more. Today there’s a strong movement to again close up the borders. But for some number of us, the openness to people’s cultures, multiplicities, is one of the terrific things about being here. And yet, for all of that, you still get these developing, these re-developing nativisms, and the sense that there are some within the country who are truly Americans, and there are some within that who are differently, or only secondarily…
Joris: When this reporter from the local newspaper interviewed me and I suggested that maybe there were no “true” Americans, that even the Indians had come here at some time from somewhere else, and that in that sense I was just as American or non-American as anyone else, he titled his article: “SUNY Poet is Fake American”!
Rothenberg: And I called you a “Luxembourg Yankee”…
Funkhouser: Along the same lines, and maybe this is more closely related to the book, I was thinking of how Nate Mackey, in his set of critical essays [ Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross- Culturality, and Experimental Writing ], coins the phrase discrepant engagement.” It’s a process by which he intermixes the work of writers which aren’t normally brought together under the same critical or creative lens, in a way of breaking down literary and cultural monoliths, which is what we are talking about. Your anthology is really outstanding because of its extensive cutting across genres and forms, cultures, in a way that no other collection of poetry in English has before. and there’s cuts and splices within the text which are delightfully surprising. So you have two different types of unusual editing going on. In the Introduction to the anthology, you talk a bit about this desire to tear down previously standing boundaries. I wanted to ask you about the radical postmodern editing that you do, and if you had any more to say about what were trying to trying to accomplish through the juxtapositions, what kind of discrepant engagement you might see this ethnopoetics project involved with. How much of it has to do with extending and livening up the anthology as a form?
Joris: You said it! [laughter by all]
Rothenberg: There’s a statement inherent in your question. I mean, yes - as you continued to unfold the question, I felt myself saying ‘yes, yes, yes.’ I didn’t know Nate Mackey’s term, but certainly his project is of particular interest. Not only because he’s an extraordinarily good poet and editor, but because he pulls off a really big poetry that precisely crosses genres and boundaries without at the same time losing its ‘Mackeyness.’ His openings are wonderful. There’s a big mind at work there. Unlike what one is fearful of in poets who base themselves in some particularly ethnic place but don’t cross over. Very often it closes them off, and ultimately all they talk about is that. I mean to say that there can be a narrowing. Sometimes that narrowing is so intense that something results from it and makes a poetry, and sometimes (most often, now that I think of it) it narrows into a sentimentality.
Joris: A closing down.
Rothenberg: When we saw [the Syrian poet] Adonis in Paris a few weeks ago, he was talking about the life of Arabic poetry and the obvious danger that the poetry there goes from being an instrument of exploration and vision (as it is for him and others) and becomes again an instrument for the perpetuation of fixed truths-in this case (as so often) of religious tradition. Those are two claims for poetry that are in necessary conflict.
Joris: Which is what, say, any fixed form poetry is still about. That is, anybody hanging on to, say, the sestina or trying to recover any other such fixed form-and that includes even the “fixed” form of the basic confessional creative writing class free verse poem. The desire in such work is for a bygone-or rather a fictitious-fixity in culture. The past is wet-dream from which you don’t want to wake up. When you look at any of those anthologies of either the new formalists I think they call themselves, or of the creative writing programs, what you are really confronted with is a kind of deep-seated fear, a tight-assedness about the very possibility of change-that the world is in an incredibly uncertain state, that you can’t make sense of it as it is, and have therefore to fall back on some supposed past cultural coherency. Now clearly, Nate’s sense, and our sense, is that we think the only way the world is going to cohere, or make it, rather, is if everything can be left in, in fact, has to be left in and any momentary form or formal coherence has to be made-up then and there, in situ with all the given. One has to create enough valences to make the dance possible.
Rothenberg: Nate’s project is, like ours, inherently intercultural. Which means that many things can interact, there’s an opening for the individual writer to move across boundaries. The “multicultural” thing- without an intercultural outlet-is trickier because in some ways “ethnic cleansing,” or apartheid, can also be based on a notion of the multicultural: this culture here, that culture there, this culture…
Funkhouser: That’s how it seems to work in many academic situations.
Joris: It’s identity politics, to define everything a certain way…
Rothenberg: It tends to split apart and separate and to never get to the other, the discrepant engagement.
Joris: It’s a truly useful term to think through these matters.
Funkhouser: I was wondering if you could say a few words specifically about the editing process. You have a big stack of pages here, you start with something, and you go somewhere. I know-since you’re separated geographically-you spend a lot of time talking on the phone, faxing, e- mailing texts, and so forth. The phone has been around for awhile, but the newer technologies are recently developed. We talked a little bit on- line the other night about that.
Rothenberg: We started to…
Funkhouser: I was wondering how that has all come to affect and play a role in your work as editors, and perhaps as poets, too.
Rothenberg: Well, I don’t know if I said it on-line, but I do sometimes have a feeling that if it were not for the ability we now have to communicate in all of these ways over this three thousand mile distance, that we would have ditched the project at some point. Maybe not, but we certainly would have had to handle it in another, more painful, probably less productive way. I think, really, to split the work up differently, where one of us, say, would have become totally responsible for each gallery…
Joris: One gallery each, or something of that order. The first volume was thought through and put together-at least the first editing-while we were together, while I was living on the west coast. The second one was put together at a distance. But it was the energy of the first one-we knew roughly what we wanted-and we certainly did get together on a number of occasions-like right now, the occasion is Jerry being here for a week-and he has come several times while I’ve gone to the West Coast on a number of occasions. Nothing replaces, in fact, the bull sessions, sitting around and looking and figuring out how we are going to do this. But indeed, the combination of the three, i.e. phone, fax, and e- mail…
Rothenberg: And almost no surface mail, “snail” mail…
Joris: Yes, indeed, there’s basically been no snail mail -
Rothenberg: We almost never put anything into an envelope. I think occasionally you may have sent me a package. I’ve got a fax machine, he’s got a fax machine…
Funkhouser: In a way it enables, just in the way that technology enables us to communicate with people instantaneously around the globe. It allows for things to be created in this new way. And although you’re probably mostly between the two of you dealing with the text, and maybe you have to deal with the publisher, and rights-through the phone and fax too-telecommunications seems to open up a more expedient method of getting things done.
Rothenberg: Dealing with publishers changes with fax. Part of the nitty-gritty in dealing with publishers is a question of setting prices for use of material, and there’s a certain amount of back and forth on that. If you have to do all of that by surface mail…
Joris: You’d be at it for years and years.
Rothenberg: This way, when a problem comes up, all publishers have fax, and increasingly we’re getting publishers who give their e-mail addresses, it can be addressed on the spot. In a day you can settle what would have taken weeks of negotiation back and forth.
Joris: I can’t be absolutely sure, but I’m relatively certain that the medium, however, has not in any profound way influenced the kind of book that we have generated. I think the anthology would be roughly the same if we had sat together in California these last three years.
Rothenberg: Yes. But even if we sat together in California, we would be using-or at least you would, because you’re much ahead of me on this- the net or the web as what it also is: an information gathering device. Even sitting together, in terms of reaching out, of finding what books by an author are available, of making contact with people to ask questions as they come up… On the spot.
Joris: In terms again, of speed and availability, yes, the OCLC’s WorldCat-the world wide on-line library search facility-has been a very useful tool. Having found what I need, I can use inter-library loan, and fill in at midnight my inter-library loan forms on the net, and have the book arrive in Albany ten days later. Yes, indeed, as an information gathering tool it has been fairly good. Not perfect, because a lot of the kind of material we are looking for is, of course, not material that is available in the various institutions of instruction. So there is also a fair amount of-what do you call it, footwork, that remains to be done- contacting people, getting contacted by people who knew of our project.
Rothenberg: But we pull in things like the Library of Congress, the big repositories are available. Books at least that have been registered and copyrighted.
Funkhouser: I’ve seen a couple of publications lately where I know the editors made extensive use of on-line file exchanges. It’s phenomenal, as many editors have e-mail, have the telecommunications, things comes together quickly, efficiently. It’s that sort of thing that makes me want to say to the people who resist it: ‘some really amazing human things can happen from using these tools.’
Joris: It goes both ways. You can do a lot of interesting things, but you can also lose a lot of time. Some study for basic computer in the workplace has also shown that traditionally a letter was written by a secretary once, then corrected by the boss, and that was it. Now, with the ease of computers and printers, most letters are re-written and printed out six times before they’re sent out. So, there’s also much redundancy here-and much paper wasting. But those are things that need getting used to. When I first used the machina, I was subscribing to so many lists that I could have spent twenty-four hours a day on-line, going into the RN [the Internet’s system of Usenet bulletin boards], looking at all the stuff that was happening. One could have gotten completely lost up there-and finally I think there’s more noise than info going on.
Rothenberg: Another interesting thing, particularly while some large part of the net remains free, or virtually free, to the individual user, is the global nature of the communication; that is to say, letters in the conventional sense can go between countries but also with electronic mail you can have something like real-time conversation that is simultaneously a written exchange with people across cultural and national boundaries. As long, that is, as there’s a language in common. So, getting on the POETICS list [an Internet discussion group, moderated by Charles Bernstein] was of immediate interest in that you had link-ups as a starter to the entire English-speaking world, between the States and New Zealand, Australia, England.
Funkhouser: At first, there were some Russian poets too, but they seem to have backed off. Arkadii Dragomoshenko was on the list. He said it was too much for him! But back to the anthology-and we did talk about this a bit the other night-what forms you see this global anthology opening up into?
Rothenberg: Do you mean if one were to go electronic with it?
Joris: Ideally, remember, we thought what we would have liked was for the first volume to open with a color fold-out of what is now reproduced in black-and-white inside- The [Prose Of The] Trans-Siberian [And Of Little Jeanne Of France], the [Sonia] Delaunay amp; Blaise Cendrars work originally conceived amp; done as a fold-out…
Rothenberg: It was a professional publication for the print trade [FINE PRINT] that in one issue had a nice fold out of The Trans-Siberian. We went to UC Press and said, ‘look, let’s have this fold-out.’ And they gave some consideration to it, but it would have cost such and such, and I guess they couldn’t or they wouldn’t raise the extra money specifically to do that. But foldouts are still within the book format.
Joris: But then adding to, expanding the book-format, we would have liked to see a CD-ROM at the end of the second volume. That would have been a way of pointing to this century’s technologies, and where they’re going.
Rothenberg: But publishing people, certainly in relation to this anthology (or looking back to Technicians of the Sacred), have spoken the word CD-ROM or recognized that as an alternative means of publication. And if one were doing a CD-ROM, or multimedia version of Millennium, there would be a whole range of things to do or show: the performance and sounding of poetry, the contemporary experiments with hypertext, the things that we were speaking about just now, like the use of color and other forms of visualization as part of poetry’s extended means. All of this is built into the medium itself, so what what’s irregular in a book (and what the press won’t therefore do) is simply there with CD-ROM-like color.
Funkhouser: There’s that great [John] Cage text, DIARY: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)…
Rothenberg: Yes, that original color version that [Dick] Higgins put out when he was doing Something Else Press. Although that goes into Wesleyan’s A Year From Monday in black, white and grey, screened.
Funkhouser: So, you see multimedia applications for the work.
Rothenberg: A multimedia version would be terrific.
Joris: It would be wonderful.
Rothenberg: The one problem I’ve always had with multimedia versions of things is that the text itself becomes difficult to read. I find it hard to read text off of a computer screen. But that’s to quibble, and the other things-to see figures and movements, to get a reasonable amount of background on a poet, to be able to see poets performing their own poetry, or whatever-would really be terrific. And as for the other problem, of reading poetry off the screen, you can always download and make a paper copy. Or you can publish the CD-ROM with an accompanying book, a printed text, the way you now have a compact disc with a printed insert.
Joris: I don’t think that the CD-ROM is going to supplant the book in any way. We need the book, and we need the CD-ROM too. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.
Funkhouser: I agree. That seems to be a sensible way to approach it anyway. I don’t know if the industry is really going to embrace it quite like that, but poets probably will.
I had a couple specific questions about the anthology, and a couple of questions about anthologies in general way. The first one is, what isn’t in the anthology that you would like to have put in?
Rothenberg: The [Blaise] Cendrars Trans-Siberian (as we’ve been talking about it), and other things in color. The Blake was of course going to be in color also. He did his plates in color. David Jones, all things being equal, would have been in there with an actual excerpt, in this case from In Parenthesis, rather than the commentary (as we have it) minus the work itself.
Joris: But then Faber amp; Faber asked for just extortionary amounts of money for that, and couldn’t be budged, so we had to cut the text out but leaving in the commentary to create the sense that ‘Here, David Jones should be’-a sort of tombeau. So, that kind of thing happened, but not too often, just with two famous patriarchs.
Rothenberg: There were a number of other authors that would have been good to have, but there were questions of money and, more positively, of wanting to or needing to be global, so that we couldn’t overdo it in any one region. That would have been great, say if we had 2,000 pages to work with, but barring that, then clearly you have to draw lines.
Joris: Both volumes, at one point in their stage were much bigger. We had to cut them down to size. They already wound up being bigger than what the initial contract stipulated, and even in a way what in our minds the initial book was supposed to be…
Rothenberg: But in another sense (and to be perfectly honest) some of the cutting can really make a better book of it. To keep expanding it makes it valuable as a repository, but sometimes when you shrink it, you get a corresponding intensity. It gets sharper in the process.
Joris: Sometimes we show a few of the individual works at a longer stretch, given that the long poem is something that interests us very much.
Rothenberg: We were going to do the complete Trans-Siberian of Cendrars, for example. Instead we did three or four big chunks of it, but not the complete thing. With Mallarmé’s Un Coup dés…
Joris: It really cannot be excerpted, and so we decided to do the whole thing, to make, in fact, the point from the start, that poems have a certain size, and that this century is not the century of the small, lyric poem as the only possible, or best, or even most central mode. We try, I think, to show this in a number of ways, even if we only get six or nine pages from a poet in at a time. Certainly it would have been nice…
Funkhouser: To stretch it out a bit…
Rothenberg: I know there are other things that ideally one would do that practically aren’t feasible.
Joris: Among other things of that order, we would have liked to travel to those parts of the world that we don’t know very well to gather materials. We’re certain that in India, say, there is interesting work happening that we don’t know about. It would be great to actually go there and search it out. But unhappily that kind of fieldwork is not possible.
Funkhouser: I was wondering if you had any symbolism in mind with the cover image of the first volume of the anthology? I was thinking of the irony, the fact that the word zenith emerges, the name of a future television giant, out of this 1914 painting.
Rothenberg: That will become even clearer, won’t it, over the next few years?
Funkhouser: And then how, this pair of anthologies really is a zenith of twentieth century poetry, in print, in English. So, you have two sides of that. As far as anthologies go, it really is the biggest collection, with the widest scope. I didn’t think of it as coincidental…
Rothenberg: The cover isn’t coincidental; it means something too, both what you’re pointing out in this particular instance and that for the first time with the cover image (unlike the inside of the book) we were offered full-color reproduction. In working that out with the designer we were digging out various images and I think we had it narrowed down to three…
Joris: There was an [Guillaume] Apollinaire, there was a [Kurt] Schwitters, and I think there was a [Max] Ernst. Clearly we were looking for someone from that part of the century in whose work intersections happened, specifically where art intersected with poetry. We didn’t want an “illustration,” just a nice picture on the cover to sell the book. We wanted it to be an indication of its content. Thus all our choices were somewhere connected with the kind of poetic moves the book chronicles.
Rothenberg: The Apollinaire was the only full-color of his and done by hand. It contains a nice green color. Apollinaire, Ernst, and Schwitters were all in there as poets, and we didn’t want to do part of The Trans Siberian again, seeing that [Marjorie] Perloff has it on the cover of her Futurist Movement, but I found a catalog of Delaunay’s work with the Zenith painting, so given the title and the content of the Cendrars poem and as another instance of the Cendrars/Delaunay collaboration, it seemed the right one for our purposes. And so far, if it matters, the one typo, or mistake that I’ve come across in the whole book is in the cover credit, which mentions Delaunay all right but not Cendrars. They’re supposed to fix that up for the second printing.
Funkhouser: Is the same image going to be on the second volume, too?
Rothenberg: No. For the second volume we’ll have to find something from a later time.
Joris: We have not figured it out.
Funkhouser: These things emerge…
Joris: This will be in a year’s time, roughly.
Rothenberg: Tom Phillips…
Joris: Yes, Tom Phillips is a good possibility…
Funkhouser: It almost makes me think of what will be, a century hence, the zenith. I’m wondering if it’s going to be more visual, the form such an anthology will take now that people are working with computers. It seems like it will be different. The anthology of twenty-first century poetry…
Rothenberg: We assert that this is a preliminary to the twenty-first century, yes. But I can’t tell you what the twenty-first century will be. It’s one I expect I will have very little to do with…
Joris: You’re going to have printed matter, too. People have had print/writing around for three or four thousand years. Again, it’s not an either/or question, but a both/and situation. They may have the book and they may have the videocassette, or however the technology will pan-out. Have the CD-ROM and the laserdisc or the hologram…
Funkhouser: VR [virtual reality] goggles…
Rothenberg: Also, within the next few years we will see the commercial, big-time version of all of this coming out. We’re just first getting into it, but it won’t take more than two or three years and the industry will have made its imprint on all of these thing that we’re talking about. Obviously, that will then reflect back on the presentation of poetry and so on.
Funkhouser: Now that Microsoft and NBC have partially merged…
Joris: There are some number of ways and reasons in that. Whatever the iconoclastic, the sabotage edge of poetry has to be, it may very well have to go back to some other form of dissemination.
Rothenberg: Yeah, but there’s television, and people do video…even where they lack the means for distribution. It’s just that the early promise of-I remember when video was first coming in and hadn’t yet been made into a major public vehicle, various artist friends were saying, “Ok, we have this new medium (amp; largely unused) medium where we can disseminate art and poetry, and so forth,’ and then suddenly you realized that around it, this mammoth new entertainment industry was growing up. How many years has that been going on? Twenty?
Joris: In the late sixties, video became hot. I still have the first issue of Radical Software. Which is, I think, sixty-nine. Maybe early seventy. Yes, that promise has not been kept. If you look at the video art of that period, it’s very static. One thing was, you didn’t have the editing possibilities you had with filming. I know friends who experimented feverishly with video-only to go back to making movies. editing made video a difficult medium whereas film’s cut-amp;-glue editing, i.e. montage-and collage-had always been core elements of twentieth-century art and it’s aesthetic sensibility. This only changed when computerized, digital editing came in. So there was this odd decade-long gap where you had the kind of avant-garde possibility offered by a new medium, but remaining unfulfilled because another piece of hardware was missing.
Funkhouser: It will be interesting to see where it goes.
You’ve probably noticed that there have been a few, in the last couple of years, more anthologies coming out. There has been a trend towards anthologies. I’m wondering if this might be some-like Michael Joyce and Jay Bolter are describing things as ‘The Late Age of Print.’ Now, even if it’s hyperbole, there’s always going to be the alphabetic text that goes along with sonic or visual interpretations we have. It probably is coincidental that people are trying to lay down some definitive texts in print. That’s one way I’ve been looking at this-why are all these anthologies coming out? Why is there this need for the definitive…
Rothenberg: Well, let’s say within the anthology world-there has been a big production of anthologies for a student market. And those keep getting churned out. What’s been notable for us over the last five or six years (maybe less) is the appearance of at least several big anthologies touching on those areas the more canonical anthology makers have marginalized. Specifically, in the American instance, the anthologies from [Eliot] Weinberger, [Paul] Hoover, and [Douglas] Messerli. And what we’re doing. Suddenly, for the moment, all of those are in print, and it represents an availability of what had not been available since the Donald Allen anthology [ The New American Poetry ], which itself had had its life, and had gone out of print a couple of times, with one or two attempts to revive it. I don’t know what version of it is now in print, although I heard that someone was going to reprint the original version. But suddenly there are a number of these books that we can feel a kinship to, and I think it’s partly that some people who see poetry in a truly contemporary and radical way have now reached a certain age and certain position and are able to insert themselves successfully into that kind of work. I’m also very curious about our own sponsorship by the Comparative Literature Association at the upcoming MLA [Modern Language Association] meetings [in Chicago], which I’m a little suspicious of, while recognizing how little that is compared to what the academic world has regularly embraced and sponsored. I don’t know what we’re going to find when we actually show up there, but I expect it to be friendly enough or (at the worst) indifferent. I suspect that it’s a few people in the CLA, Marjorie [Perloff], and some others, who are friendly to this project, and have therefore allowed us their space and their sponsorship. But that’s certainly something such that I had never anticipated.
Joris: Well, we are coming to the end of the century, and our first volume covers the period from 1897 (Mallarmé’s Throw of the Dice) to, roughly, WWII. So that’s a relatively safe period, by academic standards-it’s history. And what we’ve done is to discard all the dross and dregs that had accumulated for any number of reasons to older anthologies covering that period, while adding those poets amp; movements willfully or otherwise left out previously. It is a new look at and over what should by now be a familiar landscape-and as such should be a readable proposition for anybody with intelligence- and I guess some curiosity and passion-in the academe, i.e. to anybody who doesn’t have a completely conservative approach or believes that only Eliot amp; Stevens should be rescued from that period. The second volume will be a different, more complicated matter. It covers a period closer to us, and because of that there will be a range of concerns on both sides, the conservative and the progressive. On one side that will take the shape of: ‘How come you only have [Charles] Olson and [Robert] Duncan and [Robert] Creeley there, and there is no Robert Lowell.’ Or you can replace those names by any number of other ones. That kind of thing is sure to come up.
Rothenberg: Once we’re into the second volume, we’re out of the territory where there’s anything like a consensus between us and them, at least us and them on the American side. But on other things also besides the selection of poets. One of the things, for example, that breaks strongly with the more academic view of the earlier part of the century is the attention that we give to movements. Within the literary world-though not within the art world, certainly-there has been an attempt (a consensus in fact) to forget most of that. I would think that people are going to be bothered by our foregrounding of the movements. The attention we’ve given in both volumes to the more radical forms of poetry is (without our being limited to that) another crucial difference. We move it from one half of the century to the other, which is somewhat impeded by our format. We have a project here that was done one volume at a time, so that we have a break at mid-century and aren’t able adequately to carry people across it. At the beginning of the second volume, we’ll have a small section of continuities, but a lot of late work by some very notable figures will be missing. In practice, we would have ended up not carrying through on that. In practice, for example, we’re not able bring in any of the later Basil Bunting, although we represented him with earlier lighter work in volume one, while thinking we would later come to Briggflatts. If we had known that we wouldn’t, we could have non-chronologically brought Briggflatts into volume one. On the other hand, we have early [Andre] Breton in volume one and late Breton in volume two; we have early [Ezra] Pound and we have late Pound; and early and late [Gertrude] Stein; and a number of others. There’s a limit to how much we can get into a second volume-how much from the first period we can carry along in that way. If we had had the leisure, the patience, to do the entire thing without a break, and then to publish it, we might have done it differently. We had to do it this way, I think, in order to ensure publication, about which I think we were always, until it happened, rather uncertain. That means I kept on thinking, ‘Something is going to fuck this up, let’s get something out’-so, rather than working on a single sixteen-hundred pages…
Joris: We completed one volume, then got that volume to the publisher before proceeding with the second one. In fact, early along we were playing with a number of possibilities, but the various contingencies of the actual work shaped the project into what it has become.
Rothenberg: At one point, actually, it was a three-volume set, but they would have been shorter volumes…
Funkhouser: The other day, one of the off-hand comments you made on the IRC was that the second volume was “truly awesome,” and I was wondering if that is because the content is more provocative, or whether it was the project that you have ahead of you?
Rothenberg: Dealing with the amount of content that we’re aware of for the second half of the century is very difficult: the number of poets that are now meaningful for us. As you look back to the earlier part of the century, things have…
Joris: Decanted… [laughter]
Rothenberg: You’re not overwhelmed back then by the number of people that you have to deal with. As we come up to the contemporary, until finally, we found, with the more contemporary (and I mean the very contemporary, the younger contemporary), who do you pick, say, as representative of poets born after 1975 or something? Pick out one person here or there, or what?
Joris: You can’t. We knew from the beginning that it would be difficult to end the book exactly because of that problem. In a way, considerations of space help us solve it. We’re probably going to be stuck with the fifties as the birth-decade for the youngest poets in the book.
Funkhouser: That leaves room for the next anthology…
Joris: It becomes that, a possible opening out from where we end… The trouble is, coming to today, that one is aware of too much work, and one is interested in too much work. To sort that out, i.e. to evaluate all of the current production at this point is not feasible for us-nor is it really our brief for this project. It also poses the interesting question of how one is able-if one is able at all-to read amp; evaluate the work of much younger writers.
Funkhouser: Do you have any crazy ideas for projects after the second volume? [laughter by all]
Joris: Take a rest, read all the non-twentieth-century poetry books, all the novels amp; non-fiction books that have accumulated these last six years. And maybe write a bunch of small, witty, elegant poems…as a kind of counter-move… But seriously, essentially to get back to my own work…
Rothenberg: After every anthology, I said, ‘That’s it, never again!’ But this should be it.
Joris: [Jokingly] It’s the anthology to end all anthologies!
Funkhouser: Seems like it…
Joris: We’ll wait to the next century…
Rothenberg: An anthology of everything.
Chris Funkhouser edited The Little Magazine Volume 21 CD- ROM, and is responsible for two on-line poetry and poetics journals, Descriptions of an Imaginary Universe and Passages. His work has recently appeared in Talisman, Hambone, and Callaloo. His hypertext, POETRY WEBS, was produced in conjunction with the 1996 European Media Arts Festival.