Commentaries - April 2012
from Jacket 25 (February 2004)
Transcribed by Angela Buck. The interview is a transcription of a radio interview that was originally conducted on November 24, 2003, on “Cross-Cultural Poetics,” KAOS 89.3 FM, Olympia, Washington State, USA. The poems Robert Creeley reads during this interview are from his new collection, If I Were Writing This, published by New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, www.wwnorton.com/nd/ ©2003 by Robert Creeley. Here is the original audio recording of the show.
LS: Born in 1926, Robert Creeley is the winner of a Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1999, a Lifetime Achievement Award conferred by the Before Columbus Foundation in 2000, and a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. From Black Mountain to wherever we are now, Creeley remains one of our most enduring and vital poets, “vital” spelled energetic and alive. His latest book just out this fall is If I Were Writing This from New Directions. I have him on the phone from Providence, Rhode Island where he is a distinguished professor at Brown University. Welcome, Robert.
RC: Thank you, Leonard. I hope the various beeps and gurgles (from the phone line) don’t throw us off.
LS: “Beeps and Gurgles” might make a good title for a new book.
RC: Yes, “and things that go bump in the night...”
LS: Many years ago you wrote that form is never more than an extension of content.
RC: (Laughs) I was really young then, Leonard.
LS: (Laughs) All these years later in your new book, If I Were Writing This, does that still seems true?
RC: Well, content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content. They sort of go together is the absolute point. It’s really hard to think of one without the other; in fact, I don’t think it’s possible. What I meant, whatever that means, is that what’s coming to be said — it’s like William Carlos Williams’ wonderful insistence, “How to get said what must be said...” — that need, that impulse, that demand, is what I would call the content’s finding a form for its own realization, recognition, substantiation.
[For more, read the full interview.]
At a conference entitled "Wallace Stevens, New York, & Modernism," hosted by NYU, I gave a paper in which I somewhat puckishly imagined Stevens as a New York School poet. The paper is soon to be published, with other presentations from the conference, and later responses to them, in a book. Above is a very brief video excerpt from my paper — less than a minute, in which I am doing an against-the-grain reading of Stevens' 1940s poem, “Yellow Afternoon,” as written under the sign of Ashbery.
Friedrich Kerksieck established Small Fires Press after meeting Walter Hamady in 2004. With a handful of titles to his credit, he enrolled in the esteemed MFA in Book Arts Program at the University of Alabama, where he studied with Steve Miller. Being an entirely self-taught printer, I’ve always been a little bit jealous of those who have had the opportunity to learn the finer points of typography and printing from Miller, who in turn, learned from Hamady when he was a student in Wisconsin in the 1970s. Hamady, in turn, was inspired by (but never formally studied with) Harry Duncan of The Cummington Press. Suddenly, the roots and branches of the family tree become more pronounced. Although each of these artists and their presses are, of course, distinct, there is a family resemblance worth noting. Compare Wallace Stevens’ Esthétique du Mal published by Cummington in 1945 to Scott Pierce’s Some Bridges Migrate published by Small Fires in 2008, and you’ll see what I mean. However, in book arts, it’s critical to note the importance of the distinction between resemblance and imitation. For example, there’s a whole lot of Perishable Press knockoffs floating around that aspire to Hamady’s mastery and originality through mere imitation that, unfortunately, culminate in an absurd collection of literary tropes and cute, but meaningless, artsy gimmicks. Resemblance has more to do with a history of ideas, the integrity of the imagination, and respect for the construction of things. Small Fires Press books don’t resemble Cummington Press books any more than Pierce’s poems resemble Stevens’; Bembo isn’t Centaur; and Cherie Weaver’s pictures are quite unlike Wightman Williams’. Nevertheless, there’s an important conversation taking place that speaks through generations, transcends margins and demonstrates a new way of thinking about the art of collaboration in book form.
I’ve always assumed that the name Small Fires Press is a reference to Ed Ruscha’s famous democratic multiple, which would be curious insofar as that movement’s (if you want to call it that) approach to publishing is in many ways opposed to the private press / book arts tradition that I associated with Kerksieck. While I consider both small press, democratic multiples were produced in relatively large editions, while Kerksieck’s runs are small, even by small press standards, with usually no more than one hundred copies printed. Where democratic multiples favor clean, machined editions printed offset, Kerksieck’s books are unabashedly handmade editions printed letterpress. And where the democratic multiple is largely aligned with conceptual art in New York and Los Angeles, Kerksieck’s books bring writers and artists together from around the country. They are too eclectic to characterize (and many of the books are collaborations, which adds another layer of complexity), so I’ll just name some names: Kate Lorenz, MC Hyland, Julia Cohen, Mathias Svalina, Laura Swan, Alex Chambers, John Chavez, Megan Gannon, Rachel May, Joshua Ware, Emily Kendal Frey, Zachary Schomburg, and BJ Love. Kerksieck also produces the Matchbook magazine (which is of course, bound in vintage matchbook covers), broadsides, ephemera, and a blank books. As if that weren’t enough, he also prints custom letterpress books of poetry on the side.
PS. Steve Miller's lively collection of podcast interviews with poets and book artists are downloadable and available for free by clicking here. I can't think of a more entertaining way to use new media to broaden our knowledge of writing and the book.
In the postal business, there’s a term of art (as it were): the forever stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in equal value to the current U.S. first-class mail 1-ounce rate. The term has been in use for some years, but hasn’t really been relevant until fairly recently. In eras when rates were stable — we all remember the days when the announcement of a rate increase was an event, causing a slight shock and even protest, something for which we anyway had to plan — a “forever stamp” was essentially superfluous. Now that rates increase often, almost unnoticed by a public in the process of abandoning a form of communication, one can almost not even recite the current first-class postage. Conceptually, "forever" has become handy.
Because of the impending failure of a business model, forever is pragmatic.
Okay, nothing other than a shift in business here, right? But USPS has long prided itself on iconic canonicity, official taste-making, permanent cultural celebratory gestures. Commemorative stamps are still much debated and pre-tested on the cultural-capital market. A bad choice of person or iconic scene can cause controversy.
It’s apparently time for USPS to say which 5-by-4 grid/sheet of 20th-century poets is forever (two sets of just ten chosen poets). They could have opted to commit this significant act of public canonizing for stamps that would be less relevant, and eventually essentially useless, when rates changed. I would have advised that they go with a largely different set of choices (they didn’t ask — but whom, I wonder, did they ask?), but, short of that, I would have urged them not to make these "forever stamps." It’s as if, the twentieth century being over, discussions of the valuation of 20th-century poets are done too. Is contigency of value that difficult a concept — especially for people running an organization now dependent on it for its short-term survival?
Surely there are creative technologies associated with franking a letter that could be made to enable pluralities and shifts and dynamisms and multiple aesthetic and other -isms. Stamps.com is just a simple instance of alternatives that make the provision for change and valuation part of the process. That USPS can’t think its way out of what is at this point a fairly minor matter suggests where they and their premodern sense of value is headed. Anyway, if the mode is premodern, why not stick with emblems of premodern culture. (Well, even here, they largely have.)
So we have Brodsky, Brooks, Williams, Hayden, Plath, Bishop, Stevens, Levertov, Cummings, and Roethke, forever.