Features

Mass: John Wieners

John Wieners outside the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This segment of Jim Dunn and Kevin Gallagher’s feature “Mass: Raw Poetry from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” focuses on poet John Wieners, and includes contributions from Dunn, Seth Stewart, Ruth Lepson, John Landry, Steve Prygoda, Lewis Hammond Stone, and Wieners himself.

John Wieners in 'Tenzone'

Tenzone was a highly optimistic attempt to bring free poetry, writing, and art to the masses and publish unknown writers not for money or fame but, well, the hell of it. Tenzone existed in the ’90s around New England and its high water mark was the issue with John Wieners. Wiener’s work was introduced to Tenzone founder Steve Prygoda as an undergrad at UMass by Bill Wellington, with whom Steve became friends with at the campus library. Wellington was well on in years and lived a fascinating life as a jazz horn session man and backed all the greats when they came though Boston — Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker, to name a couple. Steve and Bill became good friends and passed many evenings listening to Bill’s fascinating stories. As was customary at the time, writers like Wieners and musicians like Wellington ran in packs, and Wellington’s fond friendship with Wieners (who at the time was writing The Hotel Wentley Poems) produced “A Poem For Bill Wellington,” which he was kind enough to share. The poem was reprinted in Tenzone #2 as a front piece to the Wieners interview, conducted by Tenzone staffer and New Bedford poet Lew Hammond Stone. Stone and Prygoda, along with Tenzone cofounder Jonathan Maxwell and Stone Soup spirit guide Jack Powers, conducted the meeting with Wieners at Jack’s apartment on Joy Street. The rest of the story unfolds in the interview itself and while the words are verbatim, the night is blurred by a high quantity of cheap beer consumed by all involved. Tenzone disbanded one issue later, and Stone moved on to conduct a series of successful readings at the Roche-Duff Jones House in New Bedford, and as with Wieners and Powers, has since passed away. Maxwell dissipated into the Florida sunshine and Prygoda has remained in the Boston area and by day is a corporate slag, but by night is one-third of the high-energy, low-frills indie rock outfit called my own worst enemy. Since 2000, they have self-released their own records in addition to regularly playing the area clubs not for money or fame but for, well, the hell of it.

Contemporary English poetry and North American influences

Left to right: Tim Atkins, Amy De'Ath, Jeff Hilson, Richard Parker, Holly Pester, Sophie Robinson, and Carol Watts.

Perhaps more than at any other time in recent decades, the influence of North American poetry and poetics on English poetry is surfacing in a number of different ways. Sharing a language but positioned at a distance from the personalities and occasional conflicts between schools and coteries, contemporary English poets combine their North American influences differently, perhaps more flexibly, than North American poets do. As the works collected here demonstrate, the results of these combinations are surprising and exciting, distant and familiar; this poetry is engaging even and especially when considered apart from its influences and precedents from across the pond.

North American groups like the Language poets or institutions such as Black Mountain College and the Kootenay School of Writing have undoubtedly influenced much recent poetry in the UK, including that of Tim Atkins and Holly Pester. This influence, of course, is felt in varying ways and to indistinguishable measures; Atkins and Pester both emphasize the influence of pop-cultural forms such as cartoons and comedies. However, they also foreground their debts to North American communities and groups — for Atkins, Poets Theater in San Francisco has been crucial, while Pester takes her precedents from Canadian sound poets like the Four Horsemen.

From a slightly different quarter, Jeff Hilson and Richard Parker place Olsonian emphasis on breath and line alongside humor that is often similar in tenor to the New York School poets of the 1960s and ’70s. Both Hilson and Parker experiment with the sonnet, which Hilson reminds us has been called an “American form” in the twentieth century. But where Hilson brings together James Schuyler’s lyricism and Ron Silliman’s new sentence, Parker combines Louis Zukofsky’s late style with Herman Melville’s Pierre. Both range freely — and perhaps capriciously — across the terrain of North American writing, wearing their influences on their sleeves.

Contemporary English poets are extending and re-weaving various threads in North American feminist poetics: the work of Amy De’Ath, Sophie Robinson, and Carol Watts is characterized by playful speech rhythms inspired by William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker, and Lisa Jarnot; political commitments; and a somewhat relaxed, nonchalant feminism. The space-clearing gestures of Bernadette Mayer, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lyn Hejinian, Alice Notley, and Erín Moure, among others, have enabled these poets’ work, especially their ability to presume the significance of a feminist poetics. As Amy De’Ath explains in her statement: “I don’t feel the need to ‘invent a new and total culture’ that a previous generation felt: in poetry that’s been done for me.”

The poetry compiled here offers a range of perspectives on what’s “been done for me” — on what has come before, and on the possibilities it offers to new poetic projects. It is our hope that this work will extend the conversation among Anglophone poetries further still. 

Poems by Tim Atkins Tim Atkins
Poems by Amy De'Ath Amy De'Ath
Poems by Jeff Hilson Jeff Hilson
Poems by Richard Parker Richard Parker
Poems by Holly Pester Holly Pester
Poems by Sophie Robinson Sophie Robinson
Poems by Carol Watts Carol Watts