by Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: Are you or are you not… “a poet”?
Richard Kostelanetz: Probably not, certainly not in the sense that from childhood I wanted to write poetry as most “poets” we know did. My first literary ambition as a teenager was to write satires; a few were even published. In college I aimed to write essays, initially of criticism and then of intellectual history. After a B.A. honors thesis on Henry Miller while majoring in American Civilization, I did my M.A. history thesis at Columbia on Politics in the Negro Novel in America, which regarded literature as intellectual history. Had the senior faculty there at the time been more receptive to my concentrating upon the history of arts in America, all the arts, I probably would have gotten a doctorate. To the degree that one goes to graduate school to learn to think in a certain way–in medical school, to think like a doctor; in law school, to think like a lawyer–I now think more like a historian, more specifically an intellectual historian, than a poet-poet or even a literary gent.
While I never took a course wholly on poetry, I did take a single poetry writing workshop as a sophomore at Brown University, because my lunchtime buddy David Kelley told me that I had to see at first hand this older professor, officially emeritus at the time, named S. Foster Damon. The best description of his procedure in this course, which had fewer than a dozen participants, appears in a memoir by his Harvard classmate, E. E. Cummings, who recalls how around 1912 they were required to write poems in a succession of English-lit forms from Beowulf into the present. Though I didn’t much like this exercise as I now think I should have, I got to know Foster better, taking dinner at his house perhaps once a week, initially with David, later with my wife-to-be. Incidentally, I never took a course in English lit, which occupies only a smaller section in my humongous library.
From Foster I learned about, and perhaps connected to, American avant-garde. I never learned specific poetic forms, though as a formalist, certainly an anti-anti-formalist, more precisely a radical formalist, I respect forms, even traditional forms, even doggerel, for shaping language and, more precisely, for making poetry different from prose, which I consider the bane of too much weak so-called poetry appearing in America nowadays. May I claim with a certain perverse pride that none of my poems are prose; none would ever be mistaken for prose.
I didn’t think of writing my own poetry until the summer of 1967, some two years after I heard Dom Sylvester Houédard give a brilliant lecture about “Machine Poetry and Poetry Machines” at the ICA in London. My first efforts were visual poems, which is to say language visually enhanced through hand-drawings or the use of stencils and press-on letters. (Remember that this was well before the availability of personal computers with their spectacular alphabets.). My writing poetry also reflected my move the year before from the edge of Harlem, where I lived as a graduate student at Columbia University, to the East Village six miles south and a bit east, where I became a writer of texts other than expository prose.
Lucky I was that the very first poems I drafted, literally drew, the “Tributes to Henry Ford,” were quickly published and, better yet, anthologized first in Paul Carroll’s The Young American Poems (1968), in Nancy Sullivan’s The Treasury of American Poetry (1977) that was frequently reprinted, and then briefly in a Norton Introduction to Poetry (1973) before falling out of later editions of this pseudo-canonical textbook. While a recent book of my poetry was dedicated to Caroll and Sullivan, the name of the Norton factotum can’t be remembered.
Partly because Paul Carroll worked hard at promotion, also because he included along with the assistant writing professors more innovative people, opening with Vito Acconci, later a prominent visual artist, Carroll’s anthology had more influence than any other wholly of younger American writers ever, including one of mine, not to mention many others appearing since. Someday someone, not I, should write an appreciation of how this Young American Poets succeeded where others failed, notwithstanding its coming from a small short-lived Chicago publisher, if only to discover a truth that’s not already apparent about literary anthologies wholly of younger and/or new writers. (I thought my selection pretty good, especially for Funk & Wagnalls’ brief attempt at a trade imprint, though apparently not good enough.)
Incidentally, one reason why I’ve never taught a “poetry workshop” is that I refuse on principle to do anything that anyone else can do better. More precisely, however, I think I can identify excellence, because training in intellectual history cultivates a taste for the very best, but I doubt if now I could tell the difference between a poem to be marked with the grade of B from one deserving a D. I never needed to do so. Nor would I encourage any student to write prosy poetry. A further reason is that I wouldn’t want to duplicate Foster Damon’s requirements.
I also dislike the pretenses that sometimes follow from calling oneself “a poet.” Privileged I’m not. Though I graduated from an Ivy college and had several fellowships to get me through graduate school at another Ivy, I didn’t expect the literary career I’ve had, not to mention any poetry career. Not at all.
So much that has happened in the past fifty years, beginning with poetry, later including fiction and art, came as surprises mostly reflecting my moves within New York City. Much as producing poetry didn’t occur to me until I moved downtown, so the thought of making art as such didn’t occur to me until 1974 when I relocated only mile away south and west to a loft in the former industrial slum that became Artists’ SoHo. I didn’t become a composer until I went to Berlin in 1981.
It would be hard for me to be disappointed in my career, as some of my contemporaries are, because I didn’t expect much. None of us who went to Brown, at least in my time, expected to do much in literature, because our teachers didn’t expect we could. So few even tried. The only former Damon students before me to have visible careers were Winfield Townley Scott, who graduated in 1930, and Saunders Redding, who took his M.A. in 1932, which is to say more than a quarter-century before me.
In an early edition of the mammoth Contemporary Poets then from St. James Press in London, I found an individual entry on only one other person with an undergraduate degree from Brown, and that was Gustav Sobin, scarcely a prominent poet, whose name was unfamiliar to me until I discovered it in Contemporary Poets. Brown wasn’t Princeton or Columbia, each of which could claim over two dozen alumni with individual entries in that canonical book.
Fink: Why might one call your poetry “poetry”?
Kostelanetz: What else to call such inventions with words when no other category is more appropriate, though from time to time I’ve heard the dismissive “not poetry,” which I don’t mind as much as others might, since I appreciate the distinguished tradition of work dismissed as “not art” in the 20th century. “Word games” I’ve been told, though from time to time I’ve argued as a critic that some so-called word games, such as palindromes or tongue-twisters, represent inventive High Folk Poetry that is esthetically formalist because of its compositional rules. I suppose some of the more challenging crossword puzzles would count as well, though I don’t do crossword puzzles or play Scrabble, among other popular recreations with words. (My mother was an ace at the word game called Anagrams, which she said she never lost. I know I never beat her.)
In my book Proudly I Parade Exclusions (2017) I gladly note that the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, Poets’ House, Ubuweb, magazines with “Poetry” in their title, the “best” poetry annuals, and the poetry book reviewing media have never acknowledged me, even though my poems have appeared for decades, yes for at least four decades, in several highly selective poetry anthologies and are mentioned in several critical histories of poetry. Nonetheless, though I have received a few dozen grants and fellowships, the only sponsor to reward my creative writing was the DAAD Berliner Kunstlerprogramm. By this measure of continued American institutional resistance alone, was, is, and must my poetry still be genuinely avant-garde. Consider that being unacceptable for fifty years, even with elite recognitions, might be a unique achievement in American arts. Not even John Cage was unacceptable for so long.
Recalling that I once wrote about wanting to be “the most inventive poet ever in America,” perhaps I should have said “inventive un-poet.” For that last claim I’d surely have no competitors.
It’s been my opinion since the late 1970s or so that formal invention defines the great American tradition in poetry. Around that time I first proposed an anthology of “The American Tradition of Poetry” that would concentrate upon technical inventions in the machinery of the art. It would include the more inventive poems of John Wilson, John Fiske, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Vachel Lindsay, E.E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, Eugene Jolas, Melvin Tolson, Bob Brown, Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac, John Ashbery, John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, as well as those contemporaries extending this indigenous tradition–in sum, a succession of selections that should, like innovative art itself, surprise as it persuades, which is incidentally a good measure of the strongest radical anthologies. Though I vowed a few years ago not to edit any more anthologies, this I could be persuaded to do, because the theme remains important to me. Were I to include my own poetry in such a book, the level of inventions in my poetry could be easily weighed against historical competition.
My definition of poetry is the concentration of the materials of language, in contrast to fiction which, even in minimal forms, suggests narrative. Thus, say, “Psychiatry.” is a one-word narrative, especially if crucially followed by a period, which the British more appropriately call a Full Stop. In contrast again, essays define external realities usually in prose but sometimes just with visual materials, such as photographs. While these definitions aren’t wholly exclusive, they do seem appropriate for perhaps 99% of writing known to me, including my own efforts in all these genres or, should I say, categories.
Also as a native New Yorker, who spends nearly all his days here, I consider myself fairly sociable and for the past decade have lived adjacent to a subway entrance that gets me to Union Square in twenty minutes. Nonetheless, I don’t hustle any “poetry scene” and don’t attend gatherings of people who call themselves “poets.” As I don’t do standup declamations, more commonly called “poetry readings,” and don’t much like them, I’ve no need to go to them. I’m a parttime poet with work that I hope exists fulltime surely in print, now additionally over the Internet. (How do you divide or apportion different activities in your life, I was once asked. Poetry 100%, fiction 100%, prose 100%, I replied.)
Even when I lived from 1966 to 1974 on East Fifth Street in the East Village, I didn’t often go to the St. Marks Church only five blocks up Second Avenue from me. I went more often to Fillmore East, only one block away, whose great concerts I remembered two decades ago in a book that is less about the music there than excellence in Performance. Needless to say perhaps, the great rock stars made nearly all poets look like paltry performers.
As I also went in the late 1940s to elementary school across the street from the back of the St. Marks Church (at 235 East 11th Street, now the Third Street Music School, once Downtown Community School), I thought of the St. Markers as newcomers to my ‘hood, creating among themselves a small town within the larger city that is mine. After high school in an isolated suburb I didn’t want to live in another small town. Down the block on East Fifth Street was and still lives Kenneth Gangemi, a major minimalist writer, who was incidentally a few years ahead of me in Scarsdale High School. He didn’t participate in the St. Marks poets’ party either. Didn’t need to. Reviewing a decade ago an “Encyclopedia” purportedly about downtown New York poetry, I made a list of poets residing there whom the upstate professor didn’t notice.
You Tom are among the few literary academics I know, once joking that I’ve never had an extended relationship with a tenured woman, though some (including an ex-wife) would be tenured after I knew them and others had been tenured before I knew them. The reasons for this default are probably more subtle than I understand.
Pardon if I repeat confessions of incomprehension, though I do try hard to understand social situations that strike others as mysterious (such as the American literary scene decades ago or my alma mater Brown University more recently). Two decades ago, my partner for several years was the widowed daughter of a prominent Princeton arts professor. Incidentally, she “threw up” tenure, as the British would say, at a Florida university to return north to get married. Whenever I claimed to have “no opinion” about one or another pressing issue, she would note that Princeton professors of her youth would have never been stuck without an opinion. Never.
Fink: In your Introduction to The Yale Gertrude Stein (Yale UP, 1980), you speak of how
“… words become autonomous objects, rather than symbols of something else, for they are themselves, rather than windows onto other terrain. They cohere in terms of stressed sounds, rhythms, alliterations, rhymes, textures, and consistencies in diction—linguistic qualities other than subject and syntax…. She also discovered that disconnection enhances language, precisely because the process of transcending mundane sentences makes every word important.” (xxx)
I can think of one of your poetic experiments in which “every word” is “important” because each one is really hard to read until one puts in some effort, and then we acutely notice the “linguistic qualities other than subject and syntax”—for example, sonic relations between and among and within words. In the third Preface of Wordworks: Poems Selected and New (BOA, 1993), you identify the “String Poems” or “Strings” (some of which are written in languages other than English) as “extended lines of letters composed of overlapping words,” and “each new word incorporates at least three (or, in one… case, two) letters of the preceding word without duplicating any word” (83). Here are the first two lines of “Stringfive” [plus a few letters]:
Stringfiveveteranciderrideafencerebrumblendivestablishmentertain tegerunderwritemperamentorthographysicisternunmericallibereavesdrop (Wordworks 87).
When I try to turn the difficulty of legibility into an alternative legibility, this is what I come up with, while excluding other possibilities that would disturb the flow:
String five veteran rancid deride idea deafen fencer cerebrum rumble blend endive divest establishment entertain taint integer gerund underwrite item temperament mentor tort orthography physicist cistern sternum numerical caliber bereaves eavesdrop
But any alternative legibility is very temporary, because soon the reader is drowning in more words that are stuck together.
Kostelanetz: I may not understand this, Tom.
The word “temporary” strikes me as odd, as I don’t see any other way to read this string. In my mind is often the ideal, initially from my college roommate, Wilson B. Brown (1938-2017), who did have ambitions for traditional poetry, of “the perfect poem,” as he called it, where every bit belonged where only it could be. I think I’ve done this more than once, though not within the terms in Wilson’s mind nearly sixty years ago.
One measure of my own peculiar mind, perhaps due to some askew wiring, is that I often “get things wrong,” or at least differently, accounting for why I wasn’t an ace student but also why wayward departures come more easily to me than they appear to do to colleagues. Didn’t Johan Cruyff, the Dutch Yogi Berra, once advise: “In every disadvantage is an advantage.”
Fink: Are there other constraints involved?
Kostelanetz: None other than at least three-letter overlap.
Fink: In a String poem, can you choose any word that fulfills the conditions or does it have to be a particular part of speech like a noun?
Kostelanetz: Nothing was in my mind about parts of speech. With a single dictionary in hand, I probably considered several options. Remember that if you need a word beginning, say, with the letters IVE the possibilities are grouped together in a dictionary.
This string, though perhaps another, was written overnight in the Miami airport around 1980 while waiting for the collector Marvin Sackner to pick me up in the morning.
Fink: Do you have some Oulipian prohibition of certain kinds of words?
RK: No, perhaps because I don’t understand the value of such a prohibition.
In general, I’m not a great fan of exclusionary groups and don’t belong to any that I’m aware of. When approached a dozen years ago by someone affiliated with the purportedly classy Century Club in New York, I discouraged him with the polite excuse that it didn’t have a swimming pool. Perhaps this negative bias reflects my being Jewish or, more problematic, mostly nouveau Sephardic Jewish, which identifies two groups routinely excluded by those practicing exclusion.
I first learned about Oulipo from Harry Mathews, whom I met through John Ashbery in Paris in the spring of 1964. Much as I admire constraints in writing, most of theirs struck me as trivial and thus superficial. Also, if you accept the principle, as I do, that only excellence establishes the historic value of any group–that, say, George Maciunas validates Fluxus–then only Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec validate Oulipo, in part by producing books, indeed great books, that stand well above the other clubbers and clubees.
Fink: In the “Strings,” do you take Stein’s premises and intentions, which you articulate so well in the passage I cited above, and place them in new contexts to foreground possibilities of linguistic “performance” and reader reception that she does not cover? If so, how would you describe these new possibilities? If these poems have little to do with your longstanding engagement with Stein’s work, how do they reflect other preoccupations?
Kostelanetz: I didn’t think of them as extending any Steinian principle, though indeed agree now that they do. In general, in interpreting poetry, even innovative poetry, trust the tale, not the teller. I’ll accept your identifying her influence in my treasuring radically alternative forms.
Trying again to remember the source of the idea for strings of overlapping words, I think I’m forgetting. Are you aware of a precedent?
Kostelanetz: Speaking generally, may I suggest that from Stein probably my ambition, stated with some irony, to author more more inventive poetry than anyone else. Since this aim is probably uniquely mine, because no one else cares to cultivate it, I’m not aware of any competition.
For your record, Tom, I came to Stein late, not until my early thirties, when I discovered the more radical Stein texts, thanks to Dick Higgins’ reissuing them through his Something Else Press. In my earlier reading of the more familiar Stein, not just Three Lives but the Toklas autobiography, I dismissed her as a Jewish princess with an enormous sense of entitlement, as indeed she was. So I was never much interested in the details of her life that so enchant other Steinians. The distinct difference between Stein and other Jewish princesses is that she alone wrote great avant-garde texts that I treasure.
Among her innovations important to me are words as “autonomous objects,” as I wrote four decades ago. From this comes literary minimalism, real minimalism, not the fake flaccid minimalism popularized a few decades ago to publicize post-Hemingway fiction by Raymond Carver, among others. Remember that Stein wrote performance texts with the fewest words possible. A second is disjunctive narrative. A third is acoherence, which is to say putting words together to make sense in terms other than semantics.
One interesting question I cannot answer is why no other Jewish woman has contributed significantly to comparably innovative writing, though some Jewish men certainly have. One reason why her work might still be avant-garde is that it hasn’t influenced younger writers whom you think should be receptive.
I honestly doubt if Stein stands behind these String poems, even though they were written around the time of the appearance of The Yale Gertrude Stein (1980), which really reflects research done several years before. Overlapping words weren’t her thing. Nor, say, was bilingual writing, though I imagine she could have done it and maybe tried it before rejecting her efforts.
Fink: In your “Afterword” to Visual Language (Assembling Press, 1970), you speak of the “radical solution” to repeating others’ poetic achievements as avoiding “sentences entirely and deal[ing] instead, with individual words in isolation, a form with few artistic precedents.” And as you point out later in the essay, “selective isolation and visual display” serve the formal enhancement of language. The book features many different typefaces, dark and light shades of print, and spatial arrangements, as well as mimetic and abstract visual configurations.
In “NIXON,” the top line consists of the President’s last name with a bit of space between letters, then in the next line, less space, in the third line each letter up against its neighbor(s), in the fourth line all the letters “stenciled” together as though one, and then we find, in lines five to seven, the reversal of the progression of lines one to three until we reach “NOXIN.” Thus, you liberate the concept of “noxious” in Nixon. I believe that this exquisite attention to the properties of language calls attention to the “X”—ironically, as in the name Malcolm X—as well as the N’s beginning and ending the 37th President’s name. The effects are also very funny. At the time you wrote this, Nixon was mocked (and also feared) by the left and left liberals a great deal. Your mockery here is thoughtful and subtle.
Fink: Could you please add to my reading of “NIXON” and also offer your retrospective thoughts about that important inaugural book? For example, beyond the ways in which you have already articulated your intentions in composing the poems, do you now notice some effects that you didn’t consciously intend?
Kostelanetz: Nope. Not much. As usual, Tom, you read very well. Didn’t I tell you a while ago that you and Bob Grumman were the best close critics of experimental poetry?
Fink: Thank you!
Kostelanetz: Written in 1968, early in my poetry activity, this was meant to be a “political poem,” which was an aim fashionable at the time; and sure enough, it was soon published in The New Democrat only to be reprinted elsewhere not only in the USA but in Yugoslavia.
I probably tried to write other political poems fifty years ago; but since they weren’t as good, I probably discarded them, having already set a standard, perhaps too high, for this ambition.
Fink: And could you offer your retrospective thoughts about that important inaugural book?
Kostelanetz: I’m glad I self-published, rather than wasting time petitioning publishers both large and small with a book-length manuscript that they weren’t predisposed to do then and probably wouldn’t do now either. Not only did copies sell but some went to anthologists who reprinted selections.
Though literary wiseguys at the time, and perhaps now, advise against self-publishing, that’s what young poets should do if they have respect for their work, especially if it’s as unacceptable as mine was then and no one else is taking. Indeed, may I suggest that self-publishing measures not failure but, by contrast, a writer’s respect for his or her work. Thanks to on-demand services, it’s much easier to do today than it used to be.
I should add now that, even though publishers both large and small are doing my new books, most appear from my Archae (pronounced with the letters R & K) Editions via Amazon’s CreateSpace. Here my motive is cleaning out my archives of unpublished projects that I think ought to survive me. My measure in publishing a new title is not whether it will sell, but if at least one person will like it enough to tell someone else about it and, secondarily, if some critic or historian already familiar with my work will acknowledge the new book. That’s why nearly all are priced as cheaply as acceptable to Amazon. (The exceptions are those few books priced at a thousand dollars which I call “posthumous,” because they tell truths I’d rather leave behind in a definitive form, available only at a forbidding price, than entrust to my executors.)
Fink: Which living poets do you now feel closest to?
Kostelanetz: John M. Bennett, whom I consider the seminal poet-as-poet of my generation, producing a great amount of work, perhaps too much, greatly various to alternative degrees. My principal first reader for decades now has been the Canadian poet and anthologist John Robert Colombo, who regularly offers good suggestions and criticisms. I love him and would marry him hadn’t his wife Ruth gotten him first, some sixty years ago. Remember that he was one of the four subeditors whose theme was alternatives to established post-WWII poetries. That was also the theme of my Possibilities of Poetry that came out three years earlier.
Because Open Poetry was a hardback from Simon & Schuster, very much a commercial press, it was reviewed, though probably not kept in print for long. My own Possibilities came out from Delacorte as a trade paperback. Though it wasn’t reviewed, it did go through a few printings. Consider that on Amazon a used copy of Open Poetry costs $39.95; my Possibilities, $1.99; the difference may or may not be significant. Incidentally, two claims I’d like to make for my anthology are that its long introduction represents the best intellectual history, more specifically arts history, I’ve done, albeit a few years out of graduate school, and then that the book’s sequence illustrates the introduction by grouping various alternatives–possibilities, if you will, under Roman numerals–in the same order that I discuss them. Is this clear? The sequence here departs from the more familiar orderings by alphabetical names or chronological years of birth. Both these conventions in anthologies signal under-editing, at least to me.
For less than a decade I’ve identified Dana Gioia as my principal sparring partner. Since we agree about formalism and respect for highest standards, we can and do disagree, sometimes fiercely, about details. I also think his love poems will be remembered; likewise 3½ of his essays.
Here I suppose I should mention that Chuck Bernstein, whom I’ve not seen first-hand in years (and am not so sure what he looks like), has been my favorite Useful Nemesis, which is to say that whatever he does, not only as a poet but in his career, I don’t.
I’d like to imagine that I might be another poet’s Useful Nemesis, but so far he or she hasn’t.
The dead poet whom I idolize most is Guillaume Apollinaire, who was awesomely active and courageously various in his painfully short career. Remember that he died short of forty. Since his surname at birth was Kostrowitzki, his buddies called him Kostro, much as I’ve long been called Kosti. Recalling his appreciation of coincidence, may I note that our family names both begin with the same four letters and that each contains four syllables. (Had my American grandparents followed the example of my Danish relatives in transliterating from the Russian, it would be Kosteljanetz and thus also contain, like Kostro’s, twelve letters, which is unusually long for a surname west of Poland, and likewise with an accent on the third syllable. (One difference is that my surname sounds Latino, as it was probably once Costellanos; Kostro’s doesn’t.)
Since I too have had no children, may I for that reason alone consider myself Kostro’s most legitimate heir, much as I suppose my own legitimate heir would likewise have or adopt a surname beginning Kost and containing four syllables and perhaps twelve letters. Extending my identification with my Main Dead Poet, I produced a thin book roughly translating his major poem and his major literary essay as Kosti’s Kostro (2014). Much as his writings are honored a century after his death, so I hope may mine be.
Fink: Would you say that Stein influenced any of your other poetic endeavors? If so, which one(s)? And how?
Kostelanetz: This is a profound question that I suspect others could, and perhaps will, answer better than I can. Too bad Dick Higgins is no longer around, because he understood the broadest implications of post-Stein better than anyone I know. As my closest colleague through the 1970s to his death in 1998, he had the most imaginative literary mind among my contemporaries.
In 1974, the poet Harvey Shapiro, long a deputy editor at the New York Times Magazine, commissioned me to do a long profile of Stein for her 100th birthday, prompting me to reread all the SEP books but also the eight volumes posthumously published by the Yale University Press. (Remember that between 1965 and 1969 I’d done for Harvey at the NYTM similar profiles of Allen Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan, Milton Babbitt, John Cage, and Herman Kahn, among others.) Though the NYTM didn’t publish it, the profile eventually appeared as the introduction to my second anthology of the radical Stein, The Great American Person of Avant-Garde Letters (2003). I have here in Wordship II some three dozen books of Stein’s writings, among a few thousand volumes of contemporary poetry. Every time I go back into her writings, I discovered something else that she was doing a century ago—something that would be original and challenging if it appeared now.
Simply, concentrating on those Stein books in bulk must have influenced me in more ways than I probably understand, even four decades later. As I write this, I suspect I’m missing much about Stein’s possible influence. Consider that this measure of insufficiently is true for most stronger precedents.
Likewise unclear to me now is the probable influence of Dick HIggins’ work upon my own. His great early self-retrospective book, FOEW and OMBWHNW (1969), perhaps the creation best representing his brilliance, certainly influenced my subsequent alternative autobiographies. He also printed self-bibliographies whose extravagance I treasure. His last I’d gladly publish under Archae Editions if I had a pdf; it should be made more commonly available. Somebody should do his collected poetries, or at least a selected, as his best, such as “glass/lass,”were very good. (He must have known that this text was special, as he printed it as a poster.)
No one other than Dick got as many letters out of me, who before email rarely sent anyone anything much longer than a postcard. If an aspiring scholar would excavate the correspondence in his archive, I think at Northwestern, he or she could make a valuable book not only about us but about literary and artistic issues between 1968 and 1998. I regret again that he’s no longer around. Likewise Bob Grumman, who was a great close reader of innovative poetries, who sometimes got more than a postcard from me.
Though I certainly knew about John Cage before I first met Dick Higgins around 1966, Dick confirmed my appreciation of a figure who was then, don’t forget, commonly regarded as unacceptable not only in musical circles but more so in literary. Just as Dick’s Something Else Press was the first to publish his poetry, since more appreciated by some academics, so the first to anthologize his poetry was me in my Possibilities of Poetry (1970).
From Cage, incidentally, I learned about the importance of inventive constraint in generating impersonal poetry, which is incidentally a characterization of nearly all my poetry, separating me, needless to say, from the vast majority of poets. One justification of this stance, no doubt respecting another Tom, last name Eliot, is this: As my critical writing is often more personal than most, both my poetry and fiction should come from someplace(s) else and have other purposes.
Need I remind that this conversation is closer to critical writing than poetry.
Fink: In the poems of Ouroboros (NYQ Books, 2014), and on the front cover, the serpent is biting its tail. One of these circular poems has the letters C H on top left and right respectively, with I N O descending on the left, H A R on the right, and M on the bottom (71). So if the reader creates the word “HARMONIC,” she starts on the top right rather than the top left and takes a roller coaster ride. If she does start on the top left, it’s “CHARM” with “ONIC” left over, and I guess “ONIC” is a kind of suffix. Or one could make two words and go down the left and right sides: “CINO HARM.”
Kostelanetz: Counterclockwise reading wasn’t planned by me, though I can’t discourage anyone’s doing so. Trust the tale, not the teller.
One caveat, Tom, is that I don’t think of circular poems as having top and bottom, left or right, although one critical question, I suppose, is whether the circle is most effectively placed, which is to say whether it should be turned, say, 90 degrees, 135 or 180?
Fink: Another example is much harder to figure out: the letter “C” is on top; from top down on the left is “S S E” and top down on the right is “A R E,” and the bottom is “L” (185). But there’s a rightward tilt to this “globe,” like the earth on its axis. By starting in different places and arbitrarily changing directions from one side to another, I get different possibilities, but only “CARE LESS” or “LESS CARE” makes sense to me. A wrong move, for example, would be “SCARE LES.” Actually, though, “SCAR LEES” would work, as “lees” can be a plural noun, if somewhat archaic.
Kostelanetz: May I again, Tom, commend reading so close you’ve discovered the word LEES, which wasn’t in my mind, though the others were.
What you’re demonstrating is that these poems, different though they are, require the level of disciplined attention developed from reading more traditional poetry.
Fink: Through the innovation of these Ouroboros poems, what do you want to have your readers experience or demonstrate to them about language and perception?
Kostelanetz: One recurring theme is these and many other recent poems of mine are about qualities and possibilities unique to the English language. Because they are untranslatable, though can probably be glossed, I think of them as English-Centered, in part to make fun of “Language-Centered” by taking their claims to a different, perhaps higher, certainly more specific level.
One critical question posed by this book is whether it is a collection of single-page poems or a long poem about the form announced and, incidentally, visually exemplified in its cover title.
Fink: The poems in Roundelays (NYQ Books, 2016), I presume, are somewhat imitative of the structure of those elegant songs. One uses this pattern 9 times:
And another follows this pattern 6 times:
MAN THE MAN THE (115)
As in many of your earlier works, I’m impressed with how fitting the font is for each text and with the variety of fonts. But what do you intend to be happening on a linguistic level in these poems? And what do you consider the benefit of the repetitions (beyond the second and third line respectively)?
Kostelanetz: The title Roundelays, I should confess, comes from John Robert Colombo, whom I’ve already identified as my initial reader. In the draft I forwarded to him (as an email attachment, in the 21st century way), I thought I was simply playing with overlapping within English words, as I’ve already done with the Strings and Ouroboros, but here plying that overlapping theme through a different, shorter form of beginning each new line containing identical letters but with a different opening word. When I showed these texts to John, who knows more about Poetry as poetry than I do, he identified a traditional form I was adapting with an idiosyncratic deviation, to acknowledge a move I like to make, which is a subset of radical formalism, and so I made his suggestion their title. Because he gives generously so much good advice, I continue to call him my Number One Reader, though not quite a Muse. Having also terrorized sonnets and rhyme, I would probably attack more poetry milestones, if I knew what they were.
Fink: In various books, you focus on how words have other words within them. In the Preface to the second edition of Multiple Ghost Subtexts (Archae Editions, 2017, first edition 2012), you refer to the “theme” of “the interaction between the ghost words and their host.” But there is also the interaction between two words on a page, one a few lines over the other:
RK: Though those were not intentional, your reading, Tom, is indisputable. This is poetry, not exposition.
TF: This two- or six-word poem meets your test for humor, and it audaciously raises questions: Do you have to flatter senior professors with “blandishments” to become “tenured”? And who are the “bland men”—the faculty voting on tenure, the newly tenured, or both? Are the “ten” members of the department commies (“red”)? Is a “red” pose “bland” in the context of total job security in a capitalist economy?
In any case, the poem is “English-centered” because keeping the relations between the ghosts and the host within the same verbal economy would be impossible in another language.
Kostelanetz: When I claimed a while ago that these were “one-word poems,” my colleague Hjalmar Flax correctly replied that they had two or more words. Incidentally I’ve since tried to write one-word poems that indisputably had no other words.
TF: And here are words on a page in Double (& Triple) Fulcra/Combos (Archae, 2017):
A D / A P T A B L E
A D U M B / R A T I O N (3)
From these two words, I get: ad, apt, able, table, adaptable, and a, dumb, ratio, ration, on adumbration. Much of the language points to notions of proportion, flexibility or solidity, structure, and representation. Self-referentiality resides in the possibility that words are “adumbrations” of or exist in “a dumb ratio” to what they signify, and that they are “apt” to be “adaptable” to more than one meaning or “table” of sense. You “ration” different “combos” to your readers, and yes, that’s “audacious.”
Kostelanetz: Do you really expect me to add anything to this? You’re demonstrating, much as Bob Grumman did, that visual poetry can be read as richly as traditional poetry. Thanks. As this isn’t obvious to most literature professors, may others follow your lead.
Were you my student, I’d bestow a doctorate.
Fink: Thank you, I wouldn’t mind another one!
Richard, you have a sparring partner, Mr. Gioia, who stands for conservative values in poetry against your experimentalism. What would he say against poems such as these, and what would you say to counter his attack in defending the “funny” and “audacious” qualities of the work?
Kostelanetz: Just as I’ve disputed the left-right dichotomy in political yak-yak for some five decades now, so I don’t understand your use of “conservative” here. It’s not an epithet I like, though I suppose it’s the opposite of “radical,” which I do use, whose opposite to me is traditional.
Fink: Yes, I retract the term “conservative.”
Kostelanetz: To me there are more crucial distinctions, say between formalism and anti-formalist. John Cage was a formalist, indeed a highly inventive one, though certainly not “conservative” to most policemen. Consider that none of Cage’s poems were prosy; none personal, except maybe his Empty Words. Likewise Dick Higgins, Robert Lax, and John M. Bennett, to name three touchstones.
One of the reasons why I can’t accept poetry readings, which is to say live declamations, is the personal prefacing: “My grandmother died last week, so I wrote this poem.” Poetry at its best is not about sentiments, attractive though they might be, but the realization of higher language and unusual formulations. While sentiment comes easily to both writers and listeners, the latter does not. From Dana I treasure the adage that the standard of poetry is “enchantment or nothing.” Bingo.
My disagreements with Dana focus more about what I take to be his limited cultural imagination, not only as a writer but as a critical intellectual and a cultural administrator, that makes him more predisposed to obvious forms over inventions and then to schmaltz, especially in late 19th century Italian opera, which he likes and I don’t, and Hollywood movies, which he sees and I don’t. In some respects, beginning with breadth of knowledge, he reminds me of Dick Higgins who was likewise a sparring partner, albeit with snail mail. Otherwise, I don’t want to misrepresent Dana, because he provokes me positively and I encourage him. I’ve no need to knock him out, though from time to time he tries to quit on me, only to come back with some punches, thankfully. Dana’s a good colleague who has inspired more than one text recently written by me.
Oh, yes, from time to time one of us thinks the other slow with humor.
Fink: Earlier you said of Ouroboros that it might be read as a single long poem, and I suppose the same could be said of books like Multiple Ghost Subtexts and Double (& Triple) Fulcra/Combos that feature the host/ghost words. What perspective would make the flow of words over all those pages a single text?
Kostelanetz: With Ouroboros, consider cutting them out and shuffling. That’s a move I recommended for a more recent Archae book titled Revelations.
One reason why these books might be considered single “long poems” is that all their parts are about the same thing, which is the form, or constraint, informing their creation.
Fink: And what impact might that awareness of long poems and shuffling have on the reading experience?
Kostelanetz: In general, any extended text whose parts are discrete pages would be different if its pages were shuffled. In truth, the most challenging problem I have in publishing any collection of single-page texts is what sequence would be best. May I encourage a sharp reader to send me suggestions for a different sequence. Thanks to the opportunities offered by on-demand publishing, printing an alternative sequence is feasible both economically and esthetically. Indeed, I did it with a book of essays edited by an intern whose ordering I respected enough to publish, but I wanted my own sequence to exist as well.
Incidentally, “a long poem” is a question that interests me. In one of my early book is “Genesis,” which has seven pages of visually enhanced words for each of the seven days, I suppose approaching narrative but not quite reaching it as each page portrays a discrete event. In I Articulations is “The East Village, 1970,” which has visual/verbal handwritten portraits of ten remarkably different streets in the neighborhood where I then resided. Those are both longer poems to me. Portraits from Memory (1974) I consider to be a book-length poem about its title. Its forty pages could probably be sequenced differently.
In the wake of my anthology of Possibilities of Poetry (1970) I proposed a “Possibilities of Longer Poetry” that didn’t find a sponsor, even though that Delta paperback went through several printings. Among those I then thought worth reprinting were:
ANDREWS, Lyman. “The Death of Mayakovsky,” New Writers VIII (London, 1968), 10 pp.
ASHBERY, John. “Europe,” The Tennis-Court Oath (Middletown, CT, 1962), 24 pp.
BERRY, Wendell. “Window Poems,” Openings (N.Y., 1968), 22 pp.
CAGE, John. “Empty Words IV,” 10 pp.
COOLIDGE, Clark. “AD,” Space (N.Y., 1970), 19 pp.
DUNCAN, Robert. “Apprehensions,” Roots & Branches (N.Y., 1964).
GINSBERG, Allen. “Kaddish,” Kaddish (San Francisco, 1963), 20 pp.
HIGGINS, Dick. “Thrice Seven,” Foew&ombwhnw (N.Y., 1969), 16 pp.
JARRELL, Randall. “The Lost World,” The Lost World (N.Y., 1965), 10 pp.
KEROUAC, Jack. “Sea,” Big Sur (N.Y., 1962), 20 pp.
KINNELL, Galway. “The Last River,” Body Rags (Boston, 1967), 15 pp.
KOCH, Kenneth. “Some South American Poets,” The Pleasures of Peace (N.Y., 1969), 15 pp.
KOSTELANETZ, Richard. “The East Village (1970-71),” I Articulations (N.Y., 1974), 14 pp.
LAX, Robert. “Black & White,” Black & White (N.Y., 1971), 15 pp.
LEVY, D. A. “The Tibetan Stroboscope,” in The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle (N.Y, 1999), 30 pp.
LIEBERMAN, Laurence. “Orange Country Plague: Scenes,” The Unblinding (N.Y., 1968), 10 pp.
MAC LOW, Jackson. “The Presidents of the United States of America,” 12 pp.
O’HARA, Frank. “Biotherm,” Collected Poems (N.Y., 1971), 15 pp.
OLSON, Charles. “Earth Was Born Without Union of Love,” Maximus Two (London, 1966), 10 pp.
OWENS, Rochelle. “The Queen of Greece (A Narrative),” I Am the Babe of Joseph Stalin’s Daughter (N.Y., 1972), 10 pp.
PRITCHARD, Norman Henry, II. The Matrix (Garden City, 1970), 10 pp.
REXROTH, Kenneth. “The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart,” Collected Longer Poems (N.Y., 1968), 22 pp.
SHAPIRO, David. “A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel,” A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel (N.Y., 1971), 15 pp.
SNYDER, Gary. “Myths and Texts,” A Range of Poems (London, 1967), 25 pp.
Too bad “Possibilities of Longer Poetry” didn’t appear, as nothing like it ever did, perhaps accounting for why longer poems are so unconsidered in America. I don’t recall much discussion of book-length poems either, though nowadays I’m thinking mostly in terms of making books, rather than publishing in periodicals.
May I conclude?
Kostelanetz: Two qualities I seek for my creative writing, poetry as well as fiction and “creative non-fiction,” as it’s now called, as distinct from my expository writing, are Audacious and Funny. Audacious means that at least one outraged reader will think my new work unacceptable, perhaps as “not poetry” or “not fiction.” The best definition of “funny,” I suppose, is a move that amuses me while others miss. Later I realized that my poems, if untranslatable, must be English-centered, may I hope with some wit.
Oddly, though Kenneth Koch wrote funny poetry, whenever he talked about his own work he was, to my recollection, deadly serious, deadly. Especially when he complained, as he often did, about insufficient recognition. By contrast, I think disparities in recognition to be less threatening than amusing, as indeed mine are, as I suppose were his too. My complaint is more about the lack of rewards, which is to say moolah, for elite recognitions in America. I’d rather not become a poster boy for what’s wrong with the machinery of literary support in America.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE on Richard Kostelanetz’s Poetry
Richard Kostelanetz has been publishing radically alternative poetry, mostly in literary magazines, for five decades. Among the many books and chapbooks collecting his poetry are: Visual Language (1970). I Articulations/Short Fictions (1974). Rain Rains Rain (Assembling, l976). Numbers: Poems & Stories (Assembling, l976). Portraits from Memory (1975). Illuminations (1977). Turfs/Arenas/Fields/Pitches (l980). Arenas/Fields/Pitches/Turfs (1982). Solos, Duets, Trios & Choruses (1991). Behold Visual Poetry (1991). Partitions (Fields/Pitches/Turfs/Arenas (Runaway Spoon, 1990). 1992). Repartitions-IV (Runaway Spoon, 1992). Wordworks: Poems New & Selected (1993). RePartitions (1994). Witch (Visual Editions-Offerta Speciale, 1999). Poetry I Shall Not Make (2003). Fulcra (2005). Ghosts (2005). More Wordworks (2006). Bilingual Poems (2006). Fulcrapoems (2007). Multiple Ghosts: Subtexts (2009). InSerts & (w/ John M. Bennett) Unfinished Fictions (2010). Three Poems (2011). Purling Sonnets (Presa, 2011), DoubleFulcra (Smallminded, 2011), DoubleFulcra 2 (Smallminded, 2011). Ono-Latter Chances* (Kunstverein, 2011). To&Fro& (Archae 2012). Three- & Two-Letter Texts (Archae, 2012). Aminima: More Ghosts (w/ John M. Bennett, Luna Bisonte-Archae, 2013). Squares/Triangles (2013). Par Sings (2013). Pitches/Turfs/Arenas/Fields (Archae, 2013). Tri/ni/ties (2013). An Epic Poem for the 21st Century (2013). Double Doubles (2014). Ambiguities (2014). One-Letter Changes (2014). Ouroboros (2014), Sagas (2015). One-Letter Poems (2016). Prosaic Poems (2016). Pure Poetry (2016). Ripples (with John M. Bennett) (2016). Roundelays (2016). Short Poems Long Poems (2016). Splits (2016). Stringfive (2016). My Song of Myself (2015). The Letter S/More Po-ems (2016). Rever/Sals (2017). Multiple Ghosts: Subtexts (2017). Double (and Triple) Fulcra: Combos (2017). Radical Formalism: Yet More Fulcra Poems (2018). Po/ems Longer (2018). Po/ems Sto/ries Longer (2018).