To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, September 19, 2011

Art of the Anthology: An Interview with Jerome Rothenberg by Travis Macdonald (Part One)

[Originallly published in Fact-Simile, Volume 1, Number 1, Boulder, Spring 2008.]

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jerome Rothenberg, poet, translator and one of the world's leading anthologists. The following conversation took place on July 11, 2007 at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Fact-Simile:  Jerome, I was hoping we could talk today about this latter aspect of your diverse career: the act of compilation.  Shortly after the publication of The New American Poetry, James Laughlin advised Donald Allen "[not to] make a career out of editing anthologies."  Having edited an increasing number of collections yourself, does this strike you as a sound piece of advice? 

Jerome Rothenberg:  Well, I don't know... it may have been a sound piece of advice for Don Allen.  And Don Allen did follow the New American Poetry with -- what was the prose collection called? [The Poetics of the New American Poetry] -- it was a collection of prose pieces, critical pieces, or theoretical pieces by poets.  It was a book that Grove Press, which had published The New American Poetry itself, also put out; and then a good number of years later Allen collaborated with George Butterick on a revised edition of The New American Poetry – the title changed to The Postmoderns..  To my mind it wasn’t revised enough, and it temporarily put the old New American Poetry out of print, which was an even greater shame. They had to make — or they did make — certain sacrifices in order to pull it off ... either cutting down or eliminating the autobiographical notes that made up the back part of the original book.  So the follow-up – the third and final anthology – wasn’t, I would think, a very happy circumstance for Don Allen. 
      For myself, I don't have any real regrets about doing anthologies.  The kickoff for me was in fact my reading of The New American Poetry and the way it blended practice and theory and pretty much limited the theory to the work of practicing poets.  I thought that combination was interesting, and when I set out to make my first anthology, I had something of that structure in mind.  Throughout all of the anthologies I’ve since composed, there’s been this sense of the anthology functioning as a kind of manifesto, a polemical work.  Not what would be called for in a college textbook, but a juxtaposition of poems and commentaries that tries to open up new territories of poetry that, while not necessarily new, have been concealed or less recognized. 
      There's a drawback to anthologies, particularly when you come to an anthology of the present time – an anthology of your own contemporaries -- unless it’s specifically an anthology of works by a group that recognizes itself as a group, that has a limited number of members where everybody that could be included has been included.  Otherwise, you're going to have exclusions and with exclusions comes not only opposition (which can in fact be very good) but recriminations and hostility (which can be very painful).  What came closest to giving me grief of that sort was the second volume of Poems for the Millennium, a volume with many living participants, unlike the first.  I have no regrets about doing it, but because it focused on the contemporary period, I got questions like "Why did you leave out so-and-so?" and "Why did you put him in and leave me out?".  But also, it was the second volume of a two-volume work, and if we were to round out the century it was a book Pierre and I felt we needed to do.

FS: You mentioned the Allen anthology as a source of inspiration.  Is that what first drew you to the field?

JR:  From an early time, I had been doing a certain amount of anthologizing in my head:  poems in juxtaposition with other poems.  I had a feeling for that going back a long time.  But then again, I have a sense that most poets carry something like an anthology within them.  The first actual anthology I made was Technicians of the Sacred, and there what was pushing me was not the desire to construct an anthology as such, but that I had been giving close attention to instances of poetry outside of the literary domain – oral poetry, poetry from tribal cultures, poetry that (at the time I was beginning my work) was most often labeled "primitive poetry" – and that I wanted a form in which to present and speak about those instances.  It came from my recognition of the wealth of poetry contained in areas like that.
            In the early 1960s, together with three other poets in New York – David Antin, Rochelle Owens, and Jackson Mac Low – I organized a reading of primitive poetry, of oral poetry.  It was already a pulling together of material I had been collecting, even before xerox, by typing out copies of poems.  So I had a pile of poems from sources like that.  And in particular I was interested in looking for some other poets, other readers for that event.  Jackson was always skeptical of everything, so he was skeptical of that too.  Antin was skeptical of most things but he really went along with the ethnopoetics stuff.  So that was the start for me — in ethnopoetics.  Somebody, I think Paul Blackburn's wife at the time, Sara, made the suggestion that this would make a good anthology.  I thought, why not? 
      I think I first tried going to New Directions, which was not then my publisher, and James Laughlin or somebody over there suggested I speak to Anne Freedgood, one of the senior editors at Doubleday.  So I approached her – this was in the 1960s when commercial publishers were developing an interest and opening up to these things.  When I presented that project to her, she very quickly came through with a contract, and we were off and running  I wasn't a heavily published author at that point, certainly no anthologies or work like that.  So there I was with a contract for an anthology and with an open hand for doing it.  So I thought: what if I were to do something along the lines of the – the very basic lines of – the Donald Allen anthology?  Poems in the front, commentary in the back.  And I plunged ahead, looking for additional material, into whatever libraries were at my disposal.  This was in New York and I was otherwise unconnected, but I got a permit to use the Columbia University library, which was my main source thereafter.  I also worked a little in the New York Public Library reading room, but that one was a little harder to use than Columbia, where I was otherwise free to wander through the stacks and came on many things by chance.  Whatever it was, I began to assemble material.  I did a little bit of re-writing on the material I assembled, where it seemed to be necessary, where the academic translations had a deadening effect. 
       Toward the end Gary Snyder introduced me to the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, who arranged a visit to the Allegany Senecas in upstate New York.  That was a momentous thing for me, that small amount of firsthand knowledge.  Then for some time after that, I certainly disregarded any advice that Laughlin may have given anybody about doing anthologies, because less than two years after Technicians George Quasha approached me to work together on an anthology of American poetry [America a Prophecy] as a radical re-reading from pre-Columbian times to the present.  A part of that, but submerged in the larger book, was a redefining or revival of the avant-garde work of the 1920s and 30s, the period between the two world wars, and I continued that on my own when Kenneth Rexroth introduced me to George Lawler, an editor with Continuum-Seabury, who signed me to do Revolution of the Word.  And Shaking the Pumpkin, the American Indian gathering was also in the works by then.  So it was really a very busy anthology time for me.  I was very clearly hooked.

FS:  What do you see as the primary purpose/importance of anthologizing? 

JR:  As I was saying before: For me it's a form in which I can discover something about the nature of poetry, to speak about it if and when I do, and it also satisfies a need I have for constructing/composing on a larger scale.  So I think — not to put too great an emphasis on my own anthologies  — but for myself I think of anthologizing as a form of assemblage (giving it the French pronunciation) and as a vehicle for discovery, in contrast, say, to the repetitive and definiitive style of textbook anthologies.

FS:  Along those same lines, what, if anything, do you consider to be the socio-cultural responsibility of the anthologist?

JR:  You know, I think of myself as basically a socially responsible person and I have some confidence that what I do in and about poetry is informed by that ... even, say, when I move into transgressive territory.  But if I do make those moves, I think it's with the intention to change things for the better.  There is, for me, some notion about the arts, that poetry, that poets can and often do invest themselves in an effort to set things right (and maybe mostly make a mess of it).  For me, I hate putting it in terms of  a word like responsibility.  Values, certainly, but ...

FS:  How does the act of editorial compilation inform or relate to your own poetry and translations?  Is there an interplay at work there?

JR:  Well, I think that in a number of different ways, yes, there is.  First of all, most of the anthologies involve a considerable degree of writing.  When I speak about commentaries, each poet brought into the mix, each section on a poet or a group of poets has a commentary attached to it.  That's an area of writing for me.  I can write about poetry through the figure of the poet in question.  That's with a sense, then, of trying to make some point, not only about that poet, but some point about poetry, about the possibilities of poetry.  Then there’s your other question, does that come back into my own poetry?  Well, I think, in a sense, that the poetry and the anthologies, the gatherings, relate in that both involve a sense of communality in the work we do as poets.  Ultimately, there's a kind of communal or collective effort that goes into both or from which both draw.  So, I think the concern with other voices, other beings, comes into the poetry as it does into the anthologies.  I don't find a great separation between them.  Though clearly I know when I'm making poetry and when I'm assembling anthologies.  You know, I wouldn't feel the same about doing the anthologies if I wasn't coming at them as a poet.

[to be continued]

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