An Interview with Ammiel Alcalay by Louis Bury.
An editorial note: Given that Lost & Found is a central topic in this interview, it would be worth noting that we did this interview a little over two years ago, just after publication of Series I. A lot has happened since then. We’ve published two more sets, each a little more ambitious than the last. Highlights have included the publication of Jack Spicer’s translation of Beowulf; lectures by Diane di Prima; the correspondence of John Wieners and Charles Olson; a Spanish Civil War project centered on Langston Hughes and Nancy Cunard; a facsimile of a Lorine Niedecker homemade book, lectures by Ed Dorn, and lots more. We’ve created a unique publishing concept, in which projects originating in Lost & Found are taken on with other publishers under the Lost & Found Elsewhere rubric. The first projects in this series are Michael Rumaker’s memoir Robert Duncan in San Francisco, with an interview and correspondence between Duncan and Rumaker (edited by Ammiel Alcalay and Megan Paslawski, forthcoming from City Lights in 2013), and Rowena Kennedy-Epstein’s extraordinary discovery of Costa Brava (Savage Coast) , an unknown and unpublished Spanish civil war novel by Muriel Rukeyser, forthcoming in 2013 from Feminist Press. We’ve also created a wide-ranging National Advisory Board consisting of writers, archivists, scholars, editors, filmmakers, artists, and others concerned with the preservation and transmission of historical cultural legacies. Finally, a revamped website features an archival bulletin board where people can participate and engage in the collaborative work we’ve been proposing and practicing. The chapbooks are now available at Lost & Found events, through the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate center (via our website), at select bookstores around the country, and through Small Press Distribution. Official publication date for Series III is Fall, 2012 but sets are available to subscribers.
For more information, visit The Center for Humanities Website.
Louis Bury: Can you talk about the origins of Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative?
Ammiel Alcalay: They’re multiple. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for many years. It comes out of a long history of thinking about why things are out of print. Gilbert Sorrentino emphasized this when I studied with him: “All these great writers are out of print? Why is that?” John O’Brien started Dalkey Archive Press in correspondence with Gil and the idea was to reprint important books that for various reasons were no longer available. I’ve also always had in mind doing something like Donald Allen’s “Writing” series, which was so useful.
LB: What was Allen’s “Writing” series?
AA: They ranged from pamphlets to books and I think there were seventy or eighty in the end. A lot of them were so-called “extra-poetic” work but they contained very important material. In the first group was Charles Olson’s “Proprioception” and “A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn,” Ed Dorn’s interviews, Philip Whalen’s interviews. I found something like that lacking in the contemporary poetry landscape.
LB: Lost and Found also has roots in your teaching. Can you talk about those origins?
AA: At the CUNY Graduate Center, where I teach, we were facing a local problem of students who work hard teaching in the CUNY system but as a result don’t have time to do extensive research and scholarship. As a way to incorporate that kind of work into class, I started a course called “Contexts of Twentieth Century American Poetry,” which was focused on textual scholarship and issues of poetic transmission. The class came on the heels of several years of telephone book-like “Collected Poems” that had been coming out – Ted Berrigan, Barbara Guest, and others – which I felt dissatisfaction with. The volumes were nice to have but very context-less. And I found when I brought in the original books to class that students would have a different experience of the poems. Without fetishizing the book as such, there is something important to how you get the poems, what form you receive them in. So my idea was to have a course where students would come out with a publishable project.
LB: I’m curious about the questions of access and circulation that you’ve brought up. You mentioned, for example, Allen’s “Writing” series, which is no longer in print and therefore harder to find, more obscure. What do you see as the politics of textual access, the politics of what remains in print and what doesn’t?
AA: There’s so many levels to this. In my own experience, I did a lot of translation during the war in ex-Yugoslavia. One of the books I translated was The Tenth Circle of Hell, by the Bosnian poet Rezak Hukanović, who was held in a Serb camp. When I first translated it in 1994, I tried to sell it and nobody was interested in it. Then the massacre at Srebrenica happened and all of sudden my phone was jumping off the hook. And I said, “But this book has nothing to do with Srebrenica.” But now there was interest in this sort of thing. So I published it, it received prominent reviews in places like the Washington Post and The New York Times, and within a year and a half it had gone out of print. On the other hand, in 1998 I published Semezdin Mehmedinović’s Sarajevo Blues with City Lights, which has stayed in print and gone through three or four printings by now. The reason why it was important to publish that book at a place like City Lights is that it presents a challenge to American writers who would look for innovative writing in presses like that. Whereas The Tenth Circle didn’t have enough traction to become a commodity, so it disappeared despite its initial blitz, which was tied into the idea that we’re in the middle of a war and this is therefore something you need to know about. The same thing has happened with Arab writing in the past five or six years. I’ve been championing Arab writing for the past twenty-plus years, but it’s only since September eleventh that Americans now have the idea that they need this material. It’s totally indiscriminate.
LB: Publishing something because it’s topical is a form of planned amnesia. The news cycle works the same way.
AA: I think the politics of the introduction to The Tenth Circle of Hell plays into this as well. I thought it would be important to get somebody for the introduction that, insofar as it would be possible in this country, fifty percent of high school kids would recognize the name, so that the book could go across certain boundaries. My first thought was Toni Morrison—that that would be an interesting and odd pairing. A couple of people flipped out, said it couldn’t be done, and Elie Wiesel ended up as the choice, which to me was revolting because he was basically cleaning his conscience for not having initially responded to the situation and here he was given an opportunity to be politically correct. So much of what happens in commercial publishing, particularly regarding foreign things, has to do with the cleansing of reputations, but people aren’t aware of it.
LB: And that’s partly, too, a matter – or a lack – of context, of unfamiliarity with the places where the books are coming from.
AA: Yeah. At a certain point, I found myself increasingly removed from commercial translation projects because I knew too much and was a pain in the ass. I was involved with certain projects that were literally putting people in danger. For example, I co-translated the work of a former Syrian political prisoner and there was an organization that wanted to showcase his work in the context of the “Axis of Evil” thing with Syria and North Korea. And I said, “You can’t do this to this guy because it will get imputed to him and he’ll get killed.” So part of Lost and Found has to do with ethics. Even in the hands-on training of certain skills: How do you consider an archive? What’s the process of choice involved? What happens when you have to deal with family members? It can get very complex.
LB: I think the assumption when you’re doing scholarly work is that you’re working with inanimate things—things that are dead, in the past—and putting them under an electron microscope. But it’s not just the authors’ relatives who are still living, it’s the work itself—and that also implies an ethic.
AA: Part of what I wanted to see happen with Lost and Found pertains to the consumer model of experience, which we’re inundated by on every level.
LB: It’s our default setting.
AA: Yeah, it’s everywhere. I’m fifty-four and happen to have had a particular background. My father was a painter. Growing up, it was just normal for me to have all these poets and artists around. They were family friends. It’s weird because there’s a paradox now. On the one hand, there’s very open access: you can email a writer you like, if you’re a young person, and maybe they’ll respond. Whereas when I was growing up, this kind of culture was weirdly underground. But on the other hand there was a different kind of recognition then. I remember when I was thirteen, in 1969, in Boston, when Kerouac died. It was a local event and a big deal. It’s very difficult – without getting nostalgic – to say what constitutes differences in experiences. But what became evident as Lost and Found developed was that the interactions with the poets’ surviving family was important and instructive for both the students and the family. Claudia Moreno Pisano, for example, was dealing personally with Amiri Baraka and Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, Ed Dorn’s widow, and had to deal with the touchy issue of how they were going to feel about the personal matters that were being discussed in the letters she was publishing. Stefania Heim got in touch with Muriel Rukeyser’s son, Bill, to get publishing permission and Bill responded by coming from California to a NeMLA conference – where some of our students had organized a panel on Rukeyser – and giving the students old publications of hers. That’s similar to the kind of first-hand transmission that I grew up around, which I feel is not manufactured. It’s surprising, you’re not expecting it, you don’t quite know what’s going to happen. It’s a risk. It’s not a context where you’re sure of what’s going to happen. That’s an important aspect of the whole training.
LB: I like how you’re describing the ability to negotiate interpersonal relationships as an aspect of scholarly training.
AA: Totally. How do you deals with the archivists? You have all levels of bureaucracy and strangeness, of openness and closedness.
LB: First-hand transmission is obviously important both to your methodology in Lost and Found and to the poets who are the focus of the series. Can you talk about first-hand transmission in the specific context of what gets called New American Poetry? More generally, how do you view the historical import of New American Poetry?
AA: The New American Poetry presented work that had been circulating at an underground level for ten or fifteen years, which all of sudden you could get it in one place. There are people who disagreed with the way Don Allen classified things in the anthology, but he was working in a model that was very successful. To me, that period in American poetry – roughly 1950-1975 – I think we’re looking at it all wrong. I’ll take the Tang Dynasty, I’ll take the Abbasid, I’ll take the Elizabethan, I’ll take the Romantics—this period is right there in terms of any adjective you want to give to tremendous cultural production.
LB: You said we’re looking at the period wrong. How do you think it’s typically viewed? And what would be some alternative ways of viewing it?
AA: When Robert Creeley died, the obituary in the New York Times was a classic American PSYOP: get ’em coming and going, so they don’t know where they are. Don’t be too positive and don’t be too negative. The second paragraph said that Creeley had mastered the vernacular, which is like saying Langston Hughes has natural rhythm. And then there was a quote from John Simon – mainly an art critic – who elsewhere has said of Creeley that his poems are short but not short enough. Now imagine an obituary which said that Creeley worked in the tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, and Melville, and that along with Charles Olson, he was one of the coiners of the term “postmodernism.” Had that obituary been written, we’d be living in another country. What I’m saying is I think we’re not close to wrapping our heads around a heroic age. These were people who were up against unbelievable odds, a handful of people who through messiness, courage, and imagination took on a very complicated shift in the total society, all the Cold War stuff, covert operations, a squeezing of experience, perpetual war—things that poets like Rukeyser and Robert Duncan were prescient about. There’s a colonization of the past that takes place. The New American Poets are viewed as individuals who are “problematic” because we’ve now “gone beyond” them: they’re patriarchal, messy, etc. All the kinds of categories you can easily debunk people with.
LB: They become a kind of stepping stone to what’s now—and we’ve surpassed them.
AA: Yeah. That’s one prevalent dismissal: “We’re tired of hearing about them.” Another prevalent dismissal is this really odd thing in this country, which is that you have this bloc of what Eliot Weinberger very intelligently called “official verse culture,” to whom the New Americans are nonentities, meaningless. Official verse culture is what our literate culture thinks of when they think of – if they think of – poetry in the last century. Poets like John Wieners are unknown.
LB: What you’re saying reminds me of how Muriel Rukeyser writes in Willard Gibbs that, “If we are free people, we are also in a sense free to choose our past, at every moment to choose the tradition we will bring to the future.” In other words, one’s cultural heritage must be actively selected, fought for as a matter of value. This notion is obviously crucial to what you’re doing with Lost and Found, but I think Rukeyser’s formulation of it emphasizes how this kind of recuperative work isn’t simply a matter of bickering over reputations but has profound implications for the present.
AA: That’s definitely the idea. I’d say two things. First, during the time of the New Americans, the university system in the U.S. expanded exponentially and disciplinarity became increasingly defined by private vocabularies and terminologies. The technocratic nature of expertise became multiplied. There was little place for actual thought. Within this environment, it was often poets who were doing the thinking. To me, Olson is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He was dealing with the human universe in an experimental way that has enormous implications still. People completely unaware of him are now doing history as he would have prescribed it. It’s taken that long to filter through. There’s a school of thought that dismisses Olson’s archaeological work in the Yucatan as imperialist plundering. There may be some iota of truth to that, but there’s the fact of curiosity, of human solidarity, of the idea that we need to risk something in order to find something else out, something that may not be “yours.” And such a view totally ignores what Olson actually did: he refused to participate in either a political or an academic career, both hard won paths for a working class child of immigrants, which he was.
LB: It’s like critiquing an abolitionist in 1830’s America for not living up to the ethical standards of 2011.
AA: Yeah, I think it’s a pervasive phenomenon, where we see this real colonialist subjugation of the past and privileging of our advantages in the present. It runs through so much thinking. As much work has been done on the so-called New Americans, the surface has barely been scratched. There’s lots of unpublished, unknown, unexplored, unexamined work. Josh Schneiderman made a great off-hand comment while working on the Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara correspondence, saying, “Why do they call them the ‘New York school’? They’re never in New York together.” And throughout Lost and Found – with the exception of the work on Rukeyser, who precedes the other poets by a bit – all the poets in the First Series, for instance, are mentioned elsewhere in the series. In the Koch-O’Hara correspondence you’ll see references to Creeley, Whalen, Baraka. In the Baraka-Dorn correspondence, you’ll see the same range of reference. This takes you out of codified literary history and into actual people. Part of the point of the scholarship is to follow the person. Forget about the school. Who did the person think about? Who did they criticize? If they’re criticizing someone, that person is in their sphere. They’re thinking about them. They’re concerned with them.
LB: They might be more concerned with someone outside their so-called school than someone in it, but it’s become unfashionable, when performing literary history, to focus on individuals rather than movements and trends. Those kinds of handles are useful…
AA: Of course, but they’re also limiting.
LB: Yes. A few times now, you’ve mentioned individual students who have edited an installment of Lost and Found. Can you talk, broadly, about the students’ role in the project? About how it serves as a training ground for them?
AA: I’ve noticed several things about the general trajectory of writers and poets working in academia in the U.S. over the last thirty to forty years, but especially over the last twenty. I don’t want to be too harsh, but they often exhibit a certain kind of ambivalence or contempt for the academic structure they exist in. A poet writing a “tenure book” is really disturbing to me. I came into this business as a Middle East scholar and so I really appreciate the nature of scholarship. Having said that, I think a lot of the students who have shown up here have felt a dissatisfaction with some of the scholarly models that they see out there and are very attracted to the odd and unique mix we have here at the Graduate Center, which on the one hand is very writer-friendly but on the other hand is rigorous in terms of what you’re going to need to think about if you’re going to produce scholarship. The further back in time you go, the more prerequisites there are: if you’re a Medievalist, you need some Latin, another language, this and that. If you’re working in a contemporary period, you actually know the least, but you have a hard time validating what you know intuitively, which is the time that you’re in. The trick is to learn the traditional skills of knowledge gathering, codification, and transmission, and then to think about the times you’re in, because it’s easy to think that you automatically understand something because it’s contemporary.
LB: Can you discuss scholarship’s relationship to the contemporary? One suggestive thing you’ve said elsewhere about literary scholarship is that you think the most radical work one can be doing right now is nuts and bolts contextual history. What is it about scholarship in our historical moment that makes you say something like that?
AA: That’s an incredibly complicated question because there are so many levels involved. There are a couple of things I would say. I’ve been proofreading a project that I helped edit called Circles and Boundaries, by my friend Kate Tarlow Morgan, who had a lot to do with Lost and Found. She has written about how the category of adolescence was invented by Rousseau in the 1760’s and 1770’s, around the time of the steam engine. Before then, it wasn’t a category: you were a child and then you worked. What has happened in this country is that we’ve extended this category. A high school diploma is worth nothing at this point. A college education only takes you so far. You need some kind of graduate degree. So on the one hand you have this extension of adolescence as advanced degrees become increasingly necessary. But on the other hand, the trend is for the educational process to be curtailed. People want to move through school as quickly as possible. There isn’t much time for real scholarship in this career trajectory. Olson went to the Library of Congress and read every item on whaling so as to boil it down into two paragraphs for Call Me Ishmael. That’s no longer a common occurrence. People don’t have the time.
LB: I agree, but why do people feel that way? They could go slower. What creates this condition?
AA: The general terror of life as it’s lived. In other words, the worry that you’re going to get stuck, that you’re not going to have job security, not going to be able to raise a family. There’s no safety net. Even in the period of time since I finished my doctorate in 1989 – at the same university where I now teach – even in this twenty-year period, the student experience is another universe compared to the way I did it. When I first moved to New York – and this was the case up until the 1980’s when it got a little dicey – it was an economy where I could work one week a month and pay the rent. Those equations have totally transformed. You’re now working to live rather than living to work. In that context, it becomes exceedingly difficult to do the kind of exploratory work in which the results are unexpected and unknown. That context isn’t going to change, but what I’ve tried to do is perforate a little bit of air into it to see what that experience would be like on a small scale and to make that the seed for a longer life’s work. As opposed to the more utilitarian approach that many people have. And not surprisingly: you have loans; there are students who are first-generation college students; students coming back from the military. So people say, “Yeah, I want to finish and move on.” The horizons have been curtailed enormously.
LB: I think that’s a great point, but I’m wondering to what extent that sort of class-based critique is unique to students at CUNY, one of the largest city universities in the world. Are the conditions different elsewhere? Are doctoral students at, say, Harvard better funded and thus more leisured?
AA: It doesn’t happen elsewhere, outside of certain very specialized disciplines. My own involvement in academia gives me a unique lens on this. My home department is Classical, Middle Eastern and Asian Languages. To do classical Homeric scholarship, for example, you need to have studied at least French, German, and Latin to begin with. In my department, the Homeric scholar happens to be Korean and very interested in things Asian, so she also knows Chinese and Japanese. Now when you’re in a tenure review and somebody from an English department, who has written a monograph on Dickens and whose research has never included any foreign sources, asks how come this Homeric scholar hasn’t finished her book, you’re kind of apoplectic. Well, because the learning curve is in another universe. I see it happen in other disciplines, too. Because there’s a rush to produce Middle East scholars, people do not take the necessary time. You need a minimum of five years in a country to really absorb the language and other intangibles, like how a culture operates. When people are rushed through, the work is often cursory.
LB: They’re getting squeezed on both ends: more education is expected of young people but in less and less time. Taking the time to do the kind of exploratory travel you did…
AA: Yeah, I managed to cobble together about eight years in another place, Jerusalem. It qualitatively changed the nature of what I was able to do.
LB: …seems beyond the pale of the kind of career trajectories that young people imagine are available to them.
AA: We’ve become so self-governing that nobody has to tell us to act a certain way because you’re going to do it yourself. It’s totally internalized. I see it in politics, too. After September eleventh, I was offered a weekly column called “Politics and Imagination” in a Bosnian newspaper. I was able to write there in ways that were unimaginable here. I wrote a column about when Bush went to Ground Zero, the clip of which reminded me of Milošević when he came to Gazimestan. It was the same situation: he had a bunch of handlers, he was very nervous, he didn’t like the crowd, he was very apprehensive, but they threw him into the scene and he came up with a slogan and the crowd responded. And it was the same thing with Bush. So I was able to describe that, which would have been unimaginable in someplace like The Nation in the first weeks after September eleventh.
LB: In our discussion of Lost and Found, you’ve talked a fair bit about your background as a Middle East scholar, as a translator, and as an activist. What do you see as the relationship between that work, much of which came earlier in your career, and your more recent work on American poetry?
AA: In 2005, I was attacked by the watchdog group Campus Watch in an article called “Poetry, Terror, and Political Narcissism.” There were several ironies involved in the attack, but one of the things that I found most interesting was that, after years of doing work on the Middle East, I was attacked at a time when I was more and more involved in U.S.-based material and institutions. I don’t think that’s coincidental. The fact that I was bringing in issues and people from the Middle East and other parts of the world to places like the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and other U.S. cultural institutions was what cranked up the volume on the attack. The attack had some libelous stuff in it, but it was one of the greatest possible validations of my work because it meant that these reactionaries implicitly and explicitly recognized the power of culture. This made me realize that my own poetic and scholarly efforts, in terms of what I’d like to do over the next x number of years, are very much related to this continent, these poets. I feel that it’s a continuation of my previous work and that it’s potentially unsettling.
LB: We’ve talked a lot about your own career trajectory, which I think exemplifies that model of personal, poetic, and scholarly curiosity evident in the Lost and Found initiative, but what about younger scholars who are starting out? Given the predicaments for undertaking scholarship that you’ve outlined, what sorts of courses of action are possible for someone who might have these intuitions or inclinations but might not work in an environment where there are outlets or spaces for them?
AA: One very simple practical piece of advice I often give to graduate students is that, given the constraints you’re under, maybe you need to think about your dissertation as simply being one chapter of a much larger trajectory which will take you many years to get to. That doesn’t mean that you need to lessen your ambitions or your conceptual framework, it just means that you need to say, in practical terms, this is the amount of work that I can do at this level at this time. The idea is to develop not the amount of work but its method.
LB: How worried do you think students are about how their work fits within market concerns?
AA: I think there’s a tremendous amount of self-policing that takes place for students. I’ve been very involved in various aspects of departmental life: chair of a department, director of a program, deputy chair of a large Ph.D. program, involved in the job process, sat on tenure committees, search committees, and so on. People self-police. In many cases, they underestimate the collective intelligence of their colleagues who are hiring them. And sometimes they may be right to do so. But in most cases – and I’ve seen this proven time and gain by how some of our graduates have gotten jobs – if the quality of the work, and the intent and the ethos and responsibility of the person are evident, those things will have a lot of weight in terms of how the particularities of the work will be considered. This isn’t always the case, but it happens much more than you’d think.
LB: In other words, when they present their work to strangers, students don’t think they’re going to be granted their donnée.
AA: Exactly. You’re fitting it to your projected idea of what you think they want, which may have no basis in reality. As opposed to saying, “This is my strength. It may sound weird to you, but let me explain.” I think in many more cases than you’d think, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt simply based on the strength of your own argument and the strength of the work. That’s why things are so stultified: everyone’s trying to conform to some idea of what they think is wanted. And the main point is that “they” are “you,” just with jobs.
LB: Talking now, it occurs to me that in my own dissertation work I’ve set up that self-policing position as a straw man that I then knock down. But it may be necessary because I’ve internalized a belief in the existence of certain external expectations. They don’t exist, but I have to act as though they do so that I can grant myself permission to escape them.
AA: I don’t think that’s atypical at all.
LB: It might be useful at this point to articulate briefly the connection between this interview and my own dissertation project. I’m very interested in the similarities between the interview as a form and a scholarly project like Lost and Found, in that both perform intellectual labor in large part by moving information from one place to another.
AA: I discovered that in my book Keys to the Garden. To me the centerpiece of that book is the interviews, which are there in place of an essay: they’re historical, they’re biographical, they’re political, they’re aesthetic.
LB: They are an essay.
AA: They’re an essay.
LB: My other goal in conducting this interview was to help make information about Lost and Found available to readers who might not have otherwise encountered it. Can you talk about what its reception and dissemination has been like to this point?
AA: It’s pretty surprising what’s happened. It was published in an edition of 1,000 and 500 which sold out in the space of several months. They’re now available through the Center for the Humanities, Small Press Distribution, and in certain bookstores. The hardest part about distribution has been creating the list of places where they would be sold because to me that is the whole business. The first hit was among people to whom this stuff really matters, to whom this history is personal and important. Through word of mouth and other means, most of those people have gotten it, which gives this project a firm basis of existence. I was driving, for example, from San Francisco to L.A. and got a phone call from Graham Mackintosh, a close friend of Jack Spicer, founder of White Rabbit Press, and a printer for Black Sparrow Press. Graham said he hadn’t seen anything like this in years—I almost drove off the highway. When I conceived of this project, if I had a pair of eyes that I wanted to look at it, they were his. As object, it passed muster: the rest will take care of itself.
LB: Are they available digitally, too?
AA: We’ve gone Luddite and old school on this for the time being. The general consensus was that there is something important about maintaining it as a print publication.
LB: I guess the other function an interview might serve – though I don’t think this always happens – the other function it can serve in addition to bringing the work to a larger audience is that it can deepen the work’s background for those already familiar with it.
AA: My feeling about it is that there is no audience. There’s you, there’s me, there’s who we give it to—there’s no abstract audience. The audience is very particular. It’s people who actually receive it. I can go into numerous examples. When I came back from Jerusalem, right before the Gulf War, after living there for about six years, I was being encouraged to write about the experience for the Sunday Times Magazine, but chose not to because I didn’t think it was a good idea. Around that same time, Robert Creeley got in touch and said he’d been invited to Jerusalem, what did I think he should do. I told him to go, but to let me write him something about what he should be looking for because nobody’s going to show it to you. I wrote him this long letter, called “Israel-Palestine 101,” which I later published with his permission in Memories of Our Future. Writing that letter had so much more efficacy than if I had written something for the Times, which a week later would have been fish wrapping. The letter went to an individual who absorbed it, internalized it, did something with it.
LB: I’ve been fascinated lately by the letter as a literary form and its one-to-one model of intellectual exchange as a stage for preliminary thinking, or for thinking that calls itself preliminary but is actually the thing itself.
AA: There’s a great line in Ralph Maud’s Olson at the Harbor where he talks about seeing Olson wiped out one day and asking him what he had been doing and Olson said, “I wrote eight letters today.” Everything gets worked out in those letters.
LB: Olson’s Maximus Poems began as letters to Vincent Ferrini. And a lot of the material you’re republishing in Lost and Found is letters.
AA: We write hundreds of emails per week. What happens to them?
LB: I often write emails as though they were letters. But I feel like that’s discouraged. It takes time to exchange letters.
AA: I have a couple of handwritten correspondences and you really have to gear up for them. It’s a very exciting thing. It’s a very different thing than on the screen.
LB: There’s a material object involved. I just started a handwritten correspondence with a friend and even knowing the first letter was going to arrive, it still felt surprising to receive something in the mail that wasn’t related to commerce.
AA: In his History of Textual Scholarship, David Greetham has a great thing where he says that what we think of as normal manuscript material is a very rare, short-lived phenomenon. The existence of a manuscript is generally not the case: the originals used to be destroyed after a printing. The period of the typewriter manuscript is rare and anomalous. So in a weird way the model that we’re on now may be closer to a historical precedent. It’s an unsettling and weird and useful thing to know. It complicates all sorts of things. It’s odd that we have a manuscript of The Waste Land with Pound’s scribblings on it. We don’t have that for the Elizabethan period.
LB: What you’re talking about is a great example of the kind of insight that only historically-minded, contextually-rich scholarship can provide. How do you see your work – both in Lost and Found and elsewhere – in relation to regnant models of historical literary scholarship, be it New Historicism or whatever is in its wake?
AA: That’s a big question. Let me try to answer it with an example. I just discovered that Christopher Simpson’s The Science of Coercion is out of print. It’s a great, concise history of Cold War propaganda, with no punches pulled. When I assign this book to graduate students – who are of course familiar with Foucault – I ask them how they can glean its methodology, which is not evident.
LB: It’s not “using” Foucault.
AA: It’s not “using” anything. How do you discern its methodology? Simpson’s book demonstrates everything one could find in Foucault as far as his research methods, the interrogation of institutional structures, the archaeology of knowledge, but it doesn’t wear its Foucauldianism on its sleeve.
LB: Why do you think that is and what might its implications be?
AA: There’s been a complicated shift in what for want of a better term might be called “bourgeois liberal thought,” which has adopted theory, but decontextualized it. All of this theory grew out of decolonization. When people were talking about the Other in the ’50’s, they were talking about the Algerian. When they were talking about the body, they were talking about the tortured body.
LB: So you’re saying that as this theory has been imported, its original context has fallen away.
AA: It gets imported at the cost of poetics, at the cost of the thought of poetics. There’s no poetry in any of this stuff. Ed Dorn had some very provocative and useful diatribes against continental theory in Ed Dorn Live, his last interviews. The problem is that if you’re French, you’ve grown up in an education system where certain philosophical postulates are a given, so that when you encounter Derrida, it’s completely logical, it comes at the end of a long train of thought. But that’s not true in an American context.
LB: That was my own experience as an undergraduate being introduced to literary theory. I was given recent theory without knowing much, if anything, about the history of work whose shoulders it stood on.
AA: It’s hard to read Derrida if you haven’t read Benveniste, for example. You don’t know the philological background to the thought, so you’re getting an abstraction of it. It’s very depressing. People have been brainwashed into accepting all this terminology and its application. It’s incredibly brilliant, but its usefulness depends on what you’re doing with it. When you encounter something like The Science of Coercion, which doesn’t fit into the received categories of theory, you don’t know what to do with it. You have to encounter that text on your own. You have to reach a state of consciousness where the text will impinge upon your assumptions. I often teach Amiri Baraka’s Blues People in the context of literary theory and it takes a while for students to figure out why since it seems more like a work of sociological history. But Baraka says in the preface that it is a theoretical work.
LB: That kind of approach to a text seems to me a poetic one. How does your own background as a poet inform your scholarship? Someone unfamiliar with your work might hear that you’re a poet and think that means, say, that you write well-crafted sentences in your criticism. Which may be true. But what you’ve been saying about poetry as a mode of thought that has been, in a North American context, an alternative to canonical literary theory seems much more substantial than a concern with matters of superficial aesthetics.
AA: The reality of the U.S. is incredibly complicated. In The Book of the Fourth World, Gordon Brotherston revisits the famous Levi-Strauss-Derrida debate about the speech-writing hierarchy and concludes that they’re both wrong because neither of them deal with non-written texts, which is what he’s dealing with in the pre-Colombian Americas: quipus and other texts that don’t fit that model. For all the work I’ve done on the Middle East, there’s no comparison to the levels of complexity that you find here, in the context of the indigenous cultures and peoples of the Americans before and then through the colonial encounter.
LB: That’s a really surprising statement because the politics of the Middle East are typically perceived as hopelessly complicated.
AA: Stereotypically, yes, but in fact it’s all pretty readable, it’s all pretty legible, because the layers are all there. But here, how do you begin to account for disappeared languages, mixed peoples? It’s off the charts. Who are we? It’s so complex. So to go back to your initial question, poetry is a form of knowledge that can allow you to get at that complexity. It’s an approach. For my generation and the one previous, you cut your teeth on Pound’s The ABC of Reading. When I’ve taught it in the past ten years, students don’t know how to respond to it—Pound is a crank. But however cranky he is, there’s stuff there. He’s telling you to read this but don’t read this, to immerse yourself in this and that and understand how meter works. He’s telling you actual stuff. It’s not theory.
LB: ABC is off-putting, too, because there’s very little commentary in the anthology at the end. It’s just given to you.
AA: Yeah, you figure it out. I think theory is a kind of prophylactic. It removes the need to make judgments. People are very afraid of two things: generalizing and making judgments. Because they’re risks. But if you’re not making judgments, you’re hiding the authoritarianism behind these theoretical constructs and you’re dismissing authority, which is needed. You can go to Pound as both an authoritarian and as an authority.
LB: Yeah, the problem isn’t the exercise of authority, because we want to be able to say certain things in the past are good and worth preserving and thinking about in a continuum with the present, but what’s troubling is what you were just saying about hiding the power relations, not making them open and apparent. It’s like a cocktail: two parts Foucault, one part Butler, one part Stein, and you have your argument.
AA: Take something like Muriel Rukeyser’s Willard Gibbs. First of all, she had to teach herself high mathematics in order to be able to write about Gibbs. Second, she was criticized for daring to say that the representative people of the nineteenth century were Melville, Whitman, and Gibbs. But if you make a claim like that, you’re going to elicit a response, you’re taking a risk. When I talk about Charles Olson as a major thinker of the twentieth century, people are going to look at me like I’m a lunatic. It’s like when I gave a talk at Cornell on poetry and politics, the first thing I did was to ask how many people are familiar with Robert Duncan. Maybe two hands. Then I asked how many people are familiar with Michel Foucault? The whole room. Why is that? What’s at work here?
LB: Two things that strike me. One is that running throughout many of your remarks is a do-it-yourself ethos. The other, which seems crucial, is that what you’re doing by asking those questions at the start of your Cornell talk – and this is something many writers and scholars I admire do – is that you’re creating a context for your work that doesn’t already exist but that needs to, for one reason or another. That’s the thing, actually, about the codification of literary theory: it allows you to assume you’re operating within the exact same intellectual context as your colleagues. Which is of course never the case. I don’t want to make it into too much of an equation, but an important aspect of Lost and Found is the way in which it creates a context you consider vital, but which can’t be assumed as shared by others.
AA: Absolutely. In this case, I don’t know where it’s going to lead. Marilyn Hacker sent a nice email where she said she was happy to see Rukeyser in this context because she belongs there. Rukeyser’s never thought of in relation to New American Poetry, but she’s related. And so when I say Lost and Found considers New American Poetry “writ large” – in and around and about –that’s to avoid reducing these writers to a series of schools: Black Mountain, New York, the Beats. These were movements, yes, but they were like an enormous scattering of magnetic filings. Kerouac is a great example of the need for context. There’s a scene in On The Road where he’s driving through an obviously black neighborhood and the scene is a kind of projection. Discussing this scene in class, a student said that it was racist. Well, look at the next page, where he’s doing the same thing to a farm. Maybe he was racist, but what does that mean? In what context? Who was he with? What music did he know, inside and out? If you’ve ever listened to Kerouac read his “History of Bop,” you’ll be astounded at some of the phrases: “America’s inevitable Africa,” for instance. Amiri Baraka has Kerouac’s books around his house, all over the place, including all the new stuff that’s come out. That kind of critique makes me crazy. It’s so easy; it’s so simple, so lazy.
LB: It’s not judgment.
AA: It’s not judgment. It’s received opinion and it’s conformism. It’s like the patriarchal and misogynistic business with Olson. Yeah, the guy was very problematic. On the other hand, think about it in reverse, what does it mean for a guy who was 6’7”, with a successful political career, to say, “I’m outta here. I’m a poet.” The only thing it could mean is that he’s a fag. It’s the only thing it could mean in that context. You don’t think he overcompensated for that?
LB: Creeley talks, in “Contexts of Poetry,” the first Lost and Found pamphlet, about the physical fact of Olson, how he didn’t want the attention, but it was unavoidable with his height.
AA: Instead of this retrograde thing why not apply Lacan’s gaze? Or “being for others”? He was noticed. You could do a Fanonian or Lacanian reading of Olson, but instead you get this simplistic thing.
LB: It merely replicates what you already know about certain power structures.
AA: It’s not helpful. It doesn’t advance anything. It puts him in his place, so you don’t have to deal with him, instead of complicating things and asking what it might mean that his work was so liberating for all these female poets.
LB: The irony of many applications of theory is that they take this incredibly rich, nuanced and textured discourse and completely flatten out its implications.
AA: Derrida has wonderful readings of Edmund Jabès, really nuanced and intricate. You can’t reapply them elsewhere, though. They’re great in and of themselves, but that’s it. The only thing you could do would be to reapply their intent.