Features - March 2013
In January 2011, I had the pleasure of hosting ten Canadian poets (and one Belgian collaborator!) first at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, and then at Poets House in New York. For months, Charles Bernstein and I had been hard at work planning a festival that would showcase various different strands of experimental writing in Canada, from sound poetry and multilingualism to activist and communitarian interventions to scientifically inflected conceptual practices. Our title was adapted, I think, from a shared mispronunciation of Steve McCaffery’s North of Intention, and was intended to gesture toward the long history of experimental writing in Canada. We also wanted to signal the long history of cross-border relations between Canadian and American practices — a history as rich in missed connections as it is in dialogue and exchange.
The readings, presentations, and conversation at North of Invention by far surpassed our expectations. It seemed clear to me that North of Invention represented a real moment of cross-pollination, not only between Canadian and American practices, but between emerging and established writers, between East and West Coast conceptualisms, between activisms, between different ideas of silence, stutter, and fluency. The invited poets, a.rawlings and her collaborator Maja Jantar, Adeena Karasick, Christian Bök, Fred Wah, Jeff Derksen, Jordan Scott, Lisa Robertson, M. NourbeSe Philip, Nicole Brossard, and Stephen Collis, represented many regions of Canada, many social groups, many generations, and many types of artistic practice. Debates were staged, but with characteristic Canadian politeness (if I may say so); people spoke to rather than past each other in a way that we rarely see in poetic communities, let alone in the broader culture. Our American audiences also surpassed our expectations, and greeted the invited artists with warmth and excitement — real and lasting connections were made.
Prior to the festival, of course, we had created extensive poet wish lists with the help of Stephen Motika and other collaborators. Although we received generous funding from the Canada Council and incredible support from our two hosting institutions, there was simply no way to bring everyone to the East Coast in the dead of winter. Some of our invited writers were unable to join us, and we couldn’t afford to bring the dozens (hundreds?) of poets we dreamed of. Of course, eleven is a tiny number, and as with any conference or festival, our main regret was that our imaginations had to be constrained by the cold, hard practicalities of organizing an international event. In the months that followed, however, we began to hear from people who had watched our webcast, from teachers and professors who were using the PennSound videos of the festival in their classes, and from local writers who had been inspired by the performances they had seen. We came to view this online activity as an opportunity to extend North of Invention, an opportunity to overcome some of the limitations that a live event necessitates. We devised the idea of asking a number of writers to respond to the videos of the readings and performances. These new responses, we hoped, would continue the dialogue on North American poetics begun at the festival.
The respondents, Sandra Alland, Melanie Bell, Gregory Betts, Mark Goldstein, Susan Holbrook, Ray Hsu, Sonnet L’Abbé, Robert Mazjels, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff and Jake Kennedy, Meredith Quartermain, Jenny Sampirisi, Steve Savage, Christine Stewart, and Sharon Thesen, represent an equally broad range of regions, poetries, and writerly communities. Their responses range from careful close readings and experiential accounts of close listening to entirely new poetic works in text, sound, and video. These responses map lines of influence, networks of community, and sites of opposition. They take us further north of invention, or intention, and begin a lively debate of their own.
We suspected that the poetry of Joseph Ceravolo has been on the limits of our poetic understanding for a reason. Therefore, we embarked on a collective effort, a group investigation of the parameters, frequencies, limitations, and timbres we could locate and cull from a famously fugitive body of work. Fugitive because of its publishing history, which may be partially due to the cruel vagaries of human existence.
Born in 1934 in Queens, New York City, Ceravolo died early, in 1988. A civil engineer by trade, he studied poetry with Kenneth Koch at the New School for Social Research and became part of the second generation of New York School Poets, along with Bill Berkson, Jim Brodey, Frank Lima, David Shapiro, and Tony Towle. They were soon joined by the “Tulsa School” poets Ted Berrigan, Dick Gallup, and Ron Padgett, along with their colleague, writer and visual artist Joe Brainard, and then by a growing number of other poets associated with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. Ceravolo, Lima, and Towle were included in The Poets of the New York School, an important anthology edited by John Bernard Myers and published in 1969. Ceravolo’s poems were published in the journals Angel Hair, Art and Literature, C, Lines, Locus Solus, Mother, and The Paris Review. He was the author of the books Fits of Dawn (C Editions, 1965); Wild Flowers Out of Gas (Tibor de Nagy Editions, 1967); Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (Columbia University Press, 1968), which won the first Frank O’Hara Award for Poetry; INRI (Swollen Magpie Press, 1979); Transmigration Solo (Toothpaste Press, 1979); and Millenium Dust (Kulchur, 1982). In 1994, Coffee House Press published The Green Lake Is Awake, a selected poems with an introduction by Kenneth Koch.
Here, we have collected some previously published pieces on Ceravolo, combined with a group of new approaches. We were interested in amassing a number of voices to attempt to illuminate this famously elusive poet’s various senses of musicality, nonsense, and also a strict refusal to fit into accustomed patterns of writing poetry. That his work is difficult to categorize is as true today as when Ceravolo was writing. We conceive of what our contributors have written as critical/experimental texts, and we are certain their cumulative effort will provide new insights into Ceravolo’s work. We have contributions in the form of poems, reviews, essays, and a panel discussion.
While we had conceived this project earlier, it is now the case that Collected Poems of Joseph Ceravolo, edited by Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers, with an introduction by David Lehman, is available from Wesleyan University Press. The zeitgeist has caught up with us; whether or not it has caught up with Ceravolo is another story, one that hopefully this feature will help readers to investigate.