By Dan Rosenberg
Poets, lovers, poetry lovers, poet lovers:
They say kind things to each other, and throw down some engaging gauntlets. Like true poets, they cause problems joyfully.
To hear more from both, join us at this year’s Poetry Exchange Project Symposium at Tulane University, Nov 7-9. There will be no wrestling matches, but we make no promises one way or the other about people falling in love. A full schedule can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.
PXP: Let’s start with what’s interesting to you about the upcoming PXP symposium, or symposia in general.
Paul Killebrew: In what must have been a fit of unbearable humanity, a friend of mine once told me that she tried to embrace the awkwardness of herself and others as a form of tenderness. I enjoy thinking about the flip side of this sentiment, which is that social graces are a kind of brutality, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained. I’ve found that large-scale poetry events like PXP tend to be light on brutality and especially heavy on tenderness, which I think is great. The psychic cost of admission is very low, and people are approachable in the way a drowning person is approachable. We all talk despite ourselves, and with any luck the student/non-student distinction fades in the zenlike oneness of all poetry symposium attendees, and then we listen to the poems. I don’t think anyone is ready to listen to poems one hundred percent of the time, but I had the good fortune of attending the final group reading at last year’s PXP, and the spirit moved me. I’m looking forward to further movements. And to meeting Robert, whose books are so carefully painful and beautiful, like a soul expelled from its recesses.
RF: The artist Richard Serra is fond of saying that work comes out of work. Since the panel I’m on has to do with poetic lineage, I’ll state the obvious, as Richard Serra seems to be stating the obvious about work while also working to eschew, like a good mid-to-late 20th century artist, concepts like Imagination, Inspiration, and the Heroism of the artist–all supposed “ideological” fevers. I’ll say that reading comes out of reading–that is, it (reading) sends out little roots and little suckers and feelers. We all know this. Back when I was walking around Barnes and Noble at age eleven or twelve, I just accidentally happened to pick up Bly’s Rilke; just accidentally picked up The Selected Poems of Lorca; just accidentally found Fowlie’s collected Rimbaud. And Bly’s translations led to many important discoveries–namely, Vallejo and Neruda, Trakl and Ghalib; Lorca led me to Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain, 1900-1975, in which I discovered Jimenez, Hernandez, Otero, and others. Rimbaud opened me to the other Symbolists.
PXP: Could you each talk a little bit about the panel discussions you’ll be participating in?
Anyway, before all that scanning of the Barnes and Noble shelves–now mostly ghost shelves–I was lucky enough to have poetry anthologies in the house. The Oxford Book of American Poetry (I’ve forgotten the dates on that one, but Lehman wasn’t editor yet) introduced me early on to Whitman and Dickinson and to the Modernists: Eliot and Stevens and Hughes. Then certain later poets: Bishop and Roethke and Wright. And outliers we don’t typically spend much time with anymore; to speak of particular poems: William Cullant Bryant’s “The Prairies,” Steven Crane’s “In the desert,” Allen Tate’s “The Wolves.” There were other anthologies that concentrated more on midcentury poets, and I was lucky to have those, too. So I’m an advocate of anthologies for young poets, even as I understand that the stakes are high for who gets seen and who gets silenced.
I wish it could be that we could all read full-length poetry books starting at age eight. Or that we started with Archilochus and worked our way down–that this was a requirement of the culture. But, hey, that’s not how things seem to be going–the early poetic wide-angle instructional mandate, for every child in the US. Poets find work, and work finds them. That is, I believe that work has a life of its own and calls out for and finds those it needs. Sets traps for them. Snares. Violent, hoary, light-soaked, visionary shag traps. Venus fly-traps for the poor, poor young poet, who gets entangled, or maybe stuck, with and in the sweet, dark, and luxuriant voices of the dead.
PK: Reading whole collections of poems from start to finish was huge for me. I didn’t start really writing poems until my last semester of college, when I took a workshop with Brian Henry in which he had us read a book of poems every week. In our first five weeks we read John Ashbery’s first five books. It was a psychedelic semester; I was also taking classes on Ulysses and American modernism, and I was doing an independent study on irony. But reading a book of poems the way I’d been listening to music, sitting there while the whole album plays, and maybe this works especially well with Ashbery, but loosening the reins on your mental state and opening the pores of reception, by now this is just what it is for me to read, but at that point it was something I’d never done.
At PXP I’m going to be on the panel on anthologies and am not at all sure what to say. I have few mature impulses. The Punk Rock Anthology of Bears, I Made Quesadillas: An Anthology of Stoned Babysitters, The 2014 Nepotism Anthology of Meager Benefits Exchange, White Men and Their Pain: An Anthology of Anthologies. But as Robert says, an anthology can be a lucky thing to have around, especially early on. It’s a pickle. When I lived in New York and went to things like the Whitney Biennial, it felt like I could find all sorts of things, though big group shows like that suffer from many of the shortcomings of poetry anthologies. Maybe what’s different for poetry anthologies is that the thing I pay most attention to is the table of contents–who’s in and who’s out. To paraphrase Tony Soprano, it’s like the poetry sports pages, and it seems like a lot of my teams are underdogs.
You know what’s really awesome, though? A good syllabus. Someone should start a blog where they just post poets’ syllabi for their creative writing and contemporary poetry classes. I would love to see more of those. It would be more instructive than most book reviews, more varied than most anthologies, and more revealing than most conversations. Will someone do this please?
This story is reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a content partner of NolaVie.