PBQ “Pressay” Project
Marion Wrenn, Jason Schneiderman, Lorraine Doran and Miriam R. Haier met on September 9, 2012 for an essayistic conversation about the 2011 titles from Four Way Books.
What can the books published by a small press in a single year tell us about editorial logic that pulls them together, and about the press’s identity, curatorial work and vision?
MW:. Why don’t we start with what we know about Four Way Books, and then we can move to what we liked, what we loved, what we noticed about these books. So, what do you all know about Four Way?
JS: It was founded by Martha Rhodes in the ‘80s, or it might have been in the early ‘90s. My sense of its reputation is that it really doesn’t have a house style. In picking up a Four Way book, you have less of a sense of what you’re going to get than you do with, say, a Norton or an FSG. I don’t want to say that Four Way doesn’t have an identity, but that it has an incredible diversity of style.
MW: That’s actually a question I had when I was reading these books: Is it Martha Rhodes who decides on them, or is it an editorial panel? Does anyone know how that work gets done at Four Way?
JS: It’s fairly opaque to me, as an author who has been accepted and rejected by Four Way. There is often a mysterious “we.” I think Martha’s is the deciding voice, but there are other readers and editors who are involved in it. Every press keeps a certain veil in place.
MW: That is part of the motive of this conversation: to tuck back that veil a little bit, to see if we can see any patterns. So, that gives us a basic sense of Four Way, and a sense of the mystery that we’re unpacking here, or at least identifying. We’re both demystifying and re-mystifying the work of the press.
What did you all like, what do you remember, what book jumped out of your pile that surprised you and is now in your stack of favorites? Or, what annoyed the hell out of you, if we can say that about books of poems?
LD: My first experience with Four Way was a book by Noelle Kocot, and I love that book so much. One of the things I love about it is that there is a sadness to her poems—an elegiac quality—but there’s also a tremendous whimsy to the poems. I felt that same vein running through Kevin Prufer’s In a Beautiful Country. I loved this book. It felt so whole, like a poet at the height of his powers. There was a lot of allying love with war, and taking things like giving love to a person, and putting them together with bombs and violence—suggesting that the gift of love has a violence or danger to it.
The poems are political, and they made me think of how hard political poems are to write. I normally have a bias against them, I admit it, because they’re usually so heavy-handed. But the way that he approaches the political is from a distance—from a detached place—and not from a heavy-handed, didactic place. Almost as if it’s all happening in a dream world.
JS: Prufer can get together that beautiful style while getting inside what’s making Americans tick. We’ve had to endure so many bad political poems about 9/11 that there is still a political poetry hangover. But he does it beautifully.
MW: So you knew his work before this?
JS: His previous book with Four Way, American Anxiety, was really wonderful.
MW: So, can I ask a question about Kevin Prufer’s book, which I haven’t read? I want to know more about the balance between the beauty of the individual poem and the book as a whole. Lorraine, you just pointed out that there was a wholeness here. Did you mean that about his individual poems, or were you talking about the wholeness of the book itself?
LD: I think it’s both. This book is pretty long as collections go; it’s over 100 pages. I felt that there was a consistency of vision in the book, but at the same time, I was continually being surprised by what he was coming up with. It’s difficult to do that, especially when you’re dealing with something like where the country is at this particular time, which is the current that underlies the book. It’s difficult to sustain, which is why I said that he was at the height of his powers. The poems felt whole and well-constructed, and the book felt whole and well-constructed in a way that’s rare.
MW: I confess I have a knee-jerk repulsion to political poetry. And I suspect I’m not alone. Why do you think that is?
JS: I think you don’t want to be in a room with someone telling you things that we all already agree with. That’s what happens with a lot of political poetry. If you watch The Daily Show, they’re always making fun of a lack of diversity in Republicans, but they also can’t deal with tokenism. They have no defenses when there’s a black Republican or a woman Republican, because if you make everything about exclusion, and then suddenly Sarah Palin is being included, you need another set of theoretical tools. And because poets draw on the personal, at times it’s hard to have a larger analysis that actually gives you something insightful, or something that you wouldn’t get better from a Gail Collins article or from Thomas Friedman. When you have someone like Kevin Prufer, who is drawing on both the personal and a deep historical, political knowledge, and can kind of pull those things while using prosy—
LD: —very well—
JS: —and while capturing the beauty of the language that he’s working with, it’s pretty exciting.
MRH: There are moments in the book when he goes into much more personal experience. There are intimate poems of his own loss. One of the reasons that the collection feels so cohesive is that he’s approaching macro analyses with the same nuance and caring as he approaches those moments of personal experience. It’s almost like a gentleness, when you’re not going at something already knowing what you’re going to get out of it. I think that’s often a problem with political poems: You know the conclusion as you’re writing them.
MW: That seems crucial. You’ve got a tenderness of approach, and a curiosity on the part of the author, so that must create a sense of uncertainty or engagement on the part of the reader—rather than the reader being walloped in the head with an idea or an argument.
MRH: There’s also a willingness to let the metaphor break down. For instance, in one poem, the body is a city when it’s a city, and then it isn’t anymore. This is not about consistency of metaphor; this is about how things actually are.
JS: Another thing I was going to say about the cohesiveness of the collections—I think that you would find Martha’s hand in all of them. I can say this because I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Martha about this, and also working on a manuscript with her. She feels very strongly about the coherency of a book—that the book really starts on the first page and ends on the last page, and that this is a much larger experience, and that each poem is teaching you to read the next. That is what she told me about how she thinks books should be constructed. With each of these books—like with one of Prufer’s political poems, where you’re being taught how he’s going to interrogate the culture as he moves forward—it makes a lot of sense that the deeper you get into the manuscript, the more comfortable you are with the moves.
MW: Say that one more time? That each poem teaches you to read the next poem. I’m looking at Jonathan Wells’s, and certainly C. Dale Young’s and Sarah Gorham’s work. You can see that in the orchestration of these books in parts.
I have to say, it was a pleasure to have this assignment. We are all reading individual poems submitted to PBQ all the time, and when you’re reading a discrete poem, you get its individual beauty. I forgot how much I actually missed this feeling of wholeness. It’s like the difference between a mix-tape and an album. With C. Dale Young and Sarah Gorham, I sat down and read these books cover to cover, in one big gulp, because I think each poem was teaching me to read the next. With Tina Chang and even Jonathan Wells, I felt like I could dip into it, read a couple, put it down, come back to it later, read a couple, and still have a sense of complexity. But the charm was in that wholeness for some of them.
MRH: With Tina Chang’s collection, the Empress sometimes reappears in a place you wouldn’t expect to find her because of the titled section-heads. That also gives a feeling of wholeness. You don’t have cut sections; characters and explorations carry through, and they defy the titles and divisions that happen when you publish a collection of poetry.
MW: It’s funny—I’m so used to reading a poem to see how it arrives, to see how that ending works. So it was a delight to see how the end of a section would arrive, or maybe point to the upcoming section. With C. Dale Young—if I recall this correctly—the final poem in the first section pointed back to the one immediately before it and pointed forward into the next section. I was just like, “Ohhh, how do you do that?”
Are you familiar with Tina Chang’s work?
LD: Very little.
JS: I know her first book very well.
MRH: I’m reading Tracy K. Smith now—Life on Mars—and she seems to talk back to some of the poems in Tina Chang’s collection. I’m thinking of the first section of Smith’s title poem, “Life on Mars”:
Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right—how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.
Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows
The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head
Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out
Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead
Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.
But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies
And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.
She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,
Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something
Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?
JS: They’re close friends.
MW: In getting ready for this conversation, I looked up what folks are saying about Tina Chang’s Of Gods & Strangers, and you’re right, Tracy and Tina are friends. And Tracy has a great review of Tina’s book. I wanted to read this blurb from it: “If time is something we are living both in and with, this book is a roadmap to what we might be emboldened to seek there, and a set of questions we might begin gathering the courage to ask.” And I thought, what a great way of naming what felt to me like an enormous canvas. I think Tina’s ambitions are huge in this book. She’s got an epic sense of history, and an epic sense of topic. There are nation poems, and DJ poems, and the Empress appears and reappears, and it’s wild.
MRH: Especially the “Author’s Notes on Imaginary Poems.”
MW: Yes, and it’s like a trick, too. On page 99, you get “Notes,” which are the notes on the poems in the rest of the book, and then on page 100, you get “Author’s Notes on Imaginary Poems.” So you’re in an expository mode, and then you’ve got an awesome freak-out. She’s in a trippy dimension, and she gives you six of these notes on imaginary poems that are fabulous.
JS: I really enjoyed Joni Wallace’s Blinking Ephemeral Valentine, because it was not narrative. It was chosen by Mary Jo Bang for the Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry. It has a slightly different quality; the poems were very much about sound. There was an incoherence that I really enjoyed.
LD: So, incoherence—almost the opposite of what we’ve been talking about. What’s enjoyable about it?
JS: It pulls you deeper in as the Valentine keeps recurring. This is a poem called “Valentine Behind Door Number Two”:
Here lies the starlit heart
housed in scarlet shingles.
Blood-bright, the socket.
White piano of ribs.
For you a lightbox to hold them.
Pry it open and the panorama leaks out,
LD: When you say these poems are about sound, do you mean how the poems are working—that it’s really based on their sonic quality—or do you mean that the subject matter of the poems is sound? Or both?
JS: Both. I think that what she’s interested in is playing with the way that sound works, and within the sentences, having that joy. I think that’s why the poems are compelling, because there is such a thrill to the way that the sounds are being put together. And it also creates a kind of coherence as you get pulled deeper and deeper in, and you’re enjoying the sound-play more and more as you go.
MW: A poem that I marked in a different book is also about sound and joy. This is C. Dale Young, the book is Torn, and the poem is called “The Bridge.” I almost made copies of it for you, so you could see what he was doing on the page, because that’s part of the delight—the words on the page are part of the joy of the poem. But listen to this:
I love. Wouldn’t we all like to start
a poem with “I love…”? I would.
I mean, I love the fact there are parallel lines
in the word “parallel,” love how
words sometimes mirror what they mean.
I love mirrors and that stupid tale
about Narcissus. I suppose
there is some Narcissism in that.
You know, Narcissism, what you
remind me to avoid almost all the time.
Yeah, I love Narcissism. I do.
But what I really love is ice cream.
Remember how I told you
no amount of ice cream can survive
a week in my freezer. You didn’t believe me,
did you? No, you didn’t. But you know now
how true that is. I love
that you know my Achilles heel
is none other than ice cream—
so chilly, so common.
And I love fountain pens. I mean
I just love them. Cleaning them,
filling them with ink, fills me
with a kind of joy, even if joy
is so 1950. I know, no one talks about
joy anymore. It is even more taboo
than love. And so, of course, I love joy.
I love the way joy sounds as it exits
your mouth. You know, the word joy.
How joyous is that. It makes me think
of bubbles, chandeliers, dandelions.
I love the way the mind runs
that pathway from bubbles to dandelions.
Yes, I love a lot. And right here,
walking down this street,
I love the way we make
a bridge, a suspension bridge
—almost as beautiful as the
Golden Gate Bridge—swaying
as we walk hand in hand.
The tricky bit is that the end of this poem actually points to the end of the next poem, so I can hear what Jason said—that these poems teach you how to read what comes next. But that poem’s a riot.
LD: It’s like a chain, and there are links—parallel, and then mirror, and then Narcissus, and then ice cream. One thing is reminding him of another thing, and the poem is unfolding that way. I like that he takes on directly the idea that no one talks about joy or love. I don’t love the sentimental, but I feel like fear of the sentimental has pushed poetry so far in a direction where you’re not allowed to talk about joy or love.
MW: But there is that sort of intellectualization going on here. Part of the joy of this is that the double letters of “parallel” get picked up and repeated—the double “l”s here are in the double “r”s and the double “m”s. The double letters throughout, and the repetition of the sound in the line—it’s just so smart.
JS: So much of that book is about being humiliated, and so much of that book is about when you’re a doctor and you fail, people are dead. And that poem where he’s sort of refusing to put aside the things that make him happy—where he’s demanding that he be allowed to take the pleasure from what seems awful—seems like an ars poetica for the rest of the book.
MRH: There’s also a way in which those types of connections happen for people in families in Torn. In the poem “Inheritance,” when he’s talking about the portrait of an ancestor with this mysterious smile, you get the sense that even when these connections aren’t so apparent, you have to make them, and this happens both in family and in life—in who love, and in your language.
MW: The shame and humiliation are gutting. “The Kiss” is a staggering poem, as is “Torn,” the title poem—the way he’s stitching up the face of a person who’s been attacked. On the one hand, you come away from the book with a visceral reaction. And yet that poem “The Bridge” just bubbles with a refusal, or a claim to joy. I’m a fan now. I didn’t know much of Young’s work, and now I want to read more of him.
JS: I also enjoyed Rigoberto González’s book Black Blossoms. It’s a celebration of divas; it’s all of these circus performers, and Lizzie Borden, and anonymous people.
MW: We published a couple of those in PBQ before the book came out.
JS: Did we? Let me see if we’re in the acknowledgments. Yes—“Painted Bride Quarterly.” Although it no longer says which poems were in which journals. Scholars of the future are going to have a harder time tracking down original poems.
MW: That’s true. But don’t you think people are doing that because of fuzzy publication deadlines? I think books are coming out, and—
JS: No, I think people don’t want you to flip to the back and read that one poem that was in The New Yorker and then nothing else. Because I’ve seen people do that. I’ve seen people take a book, find the journals they think are the most prestigious, read the ones that they think are going to be the best, and then decide if they’re going to keep reading or not.
MRH: It sounds slimy. I don’t like it.
MW: Well, no, thinking as an editor for a moment, I kind of love that. That reaffirms the editor as a gatekeeper.
JS: You’d be flattered if someone said, “Oh, every time I get a book, I look to see if Painted Bride is in the back. I read the ones that were in Painted Bride first, and that’s how I decide if I’m going to read the book or not.”
LD: It’s a function of approaching things as fragments—records or not records. We’re back to singles. Everything’s just a piece. “I want to hear a piece and then decide if I want to hear the whole.” But it’s a lot harder to do that with poetry collections than it is with songs. That’s one of the things that we’ve been talking about. If the collection has been put together well, the poems in the collection do teach you how to read one another, and expand on thoughts and play out ideas.
MW: Right—and they give you a sense of momentum. Of the books that I read, Train Dance is the one in which the sections have a completely different pace. The first section of this book is just this chugging, driving, driving. The second section is a little more open and airy. The third section is more contemplative. The pace between the sections—completely different.
LD: California by Jennifer Dunrow.is also organized in three acts. It almost feels like they’re separate chapbooks to me. The first act is a long poem about a fictional California. The speaker in the poem wants to go to California. She has all of these aspirations for what’s going to happen, how she’s going to get to California, and how things are going to be different in California. It made me think of the Led Zeppelin song “Going to California.” I think he says, “I’m trying to find a woman who’s never been born.” And that seemed like what was happening in this poem: I’ll go to California and free myself of the shackles of things that have gone on in my family or things that I’m unhappy with in my life. And then the last section is a series of letters between Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
JS: What does Charlie McCarthy say?
LD: Here’s one:
Even in the stage light
your birds are not quiet.
Your hand is a little colder today. Are you feeling well?
Has anyone ever told you your hands are like soft, skyless
MRH: There are also quotes from reviews. It lets in the world in a different way.
LD: There are. The poems are separated by quotes, and one was from Candice Bergen. I think she had a difficult relationship with the mannequin. They have a quote from her: “The eyes in all the heads stare dead and dark, the many faces lifeless, because, after all, he needed my father for that part, because he was nothing without my father.” So she speaks about the puppet as if he’s a person. And the poems sort of echo this symbiosis between Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
MRH: It’s interesting that the first section is about the creation of a place, and the last section is about the creation of a person or a persona—through this wooden doll—and about doing the work of that creation. In the first section, the poet does that work to create California.
MW: Isn’t that tricky, though, to make cultural references like the one to Charlie McCarthy? I was thinking of that in relation to Wells’s book. He’s got a poem named “Ms. Magellan®” after Magellan the GPS thing in your car. It’s funny and it’s witty, and it has its own charm and momentum. But making a reference like that always strikes me as a risky move, because it feels so pinned to the particular cultural moment. Unless there’s a swooping idea that comes along with those references, it feels like they could shut down the poem’s lifespan.
I’m pointing to two different questions: When something like the Magellan as a technology comes into a poem, does that somehow decrease the lifespan of the poem because it is so specific? But then again, isn’t that exactly the role of the poet: to bear witness to the experience of whatever the technology is?
JS: Well that’s Baudelaire’s idea of modernism, right? That modernism is representing the world as you live it now. When someone like Auden mentions the telephone, it’s weirdly shocking, because it’s a piece of technology that’s been with us for so long but it doesn’t seem to show up in poems until around the ‘60s. But now our technology is changing so quickly, and we’re so immersed in marketing. People talk about how our huge cultural stars in the 1960s and ‘70s were rock stars, and then it was comedians, and now it seems to be politicians and businesspeople.
LD: Isn’t it just ourselves now? We don’t put anyone on a pedestal anymore. I think we equalize ourselves with those people. We’re so interested in ourselves—I mean the narcissism of Facebook and Twitter, and “here’s my every move documented and put out there.” I’m thinking about Campbell McGrath, who writes about contemporary culture, but in a way that makes his poems timeless. They say something so important about who we are now that is going to tell future generations something. It’s a hard move to pull off, the more specific you get. McGrath also talks about rock stars and that sense of being really wowed and awed by something. There’s a lot of awe in his poetry that I think is missing in the culture now, and in poems as a result.
MRH: Speaking particularly about the cultural references in California, I had to look up the strange puppet-man and his puppet. I didn’t know who they were. I think that it’s different as readers now because those types of references are just a Google search away. People aren’t as put off by having to do that. It’s actually why you might go to poems—for something you don’t understand very quickly. If you want to just read things you automatically understand, you can do that elsewhere.
JS: “Charlie McCarthy” and “Edgar Bergen” are much easier to look up than what has fallen out of the past. If you go to a lecture on Emily Dickinson, and they’re talking about how her use of “transcendental” was really sexy at the time, it’s because she’s actually calling into account a number of people who were well-known for their sexual proclivities. And even something like the meaning of “adhesiveness” in Walt Whitman, which was so charged in the moment, is much harder to get back than a reference to a stage-show.
MW: What do you mean that “adhesiveness” was charged?
JS: When Walt Whitman was using “adhesiveness,” it was understood by a lot of people to mean gay sex. When you’re reading it now, you can think it’s a metaphor, or you can think about how after you finish your frottage, you stick together too long. You can take it in a lot of places.
All of this is changing how we talk. I actually think that David Kirby is the person who really captures that what looks like the shallowness of social media speak is actually invested with these deep, deep meanings and connotations. Just when you think he’s skimming the surface, all of a sudden you realize how immersed you are in what he’s talking about.
MW: I keep thinking about Matthew Goulish’s essay “Criticism.” He’s a performance artist/performance critic, and he talks about how one of the goals of criticism is to understand how to understand. That’s what makes a poem like “Ms. Magellan®” work. Yes, you can reference a pop cultural form, but the motive of the poem—it’s funny, I’m borrowing from criticism as though a poem should be an act of criticism—but the motive of the poem should be rendering in some way the experience of this technology. It should be giving us a way to understand how that thing is being understood in the moment that it’s being used. I think that’s what historians might look back to.
Fifty years hence, how are we going to trace what it was like to use these hot-button technologies? Maybe we’ll look at poems and poets who are rendering the experience of it or rendering the understanding of it. In the last five to 10 years, the stuff that we take in as pop culture is all over the place, and is also right here—and I’m holding my hand to my ear, cell-phone style.
LD: As a person who does not want to have an iPhone—I resist it—I think there is a force to technology that there wasn’t before. Just think about the way we’re recording this conversation. All of the rest of you can download an app to record it that I cannot download, so it becomes difficult to participate in things. I don’t have Facebook, so I’m isolated socially in some ways. It’s almost like we’re forced now to adopt these new technologies.
MW: In the note at the bottom, Wells has a quote that sounds like it comes from the product website: “The Magellan navigation system offers full color, detailed mapping with clear and friendly voice prompting.” The fact that he’s got that on the page with this poem, you know he’s got his tongue firmly planted in his cheek
LD: I think he’s also acknowledging that sometime not too far in the future, that word isn’t going to make sense in the way that it does right now.
JS: It’s also a little horrifying for the weird colonial implications of “Magellan.” The way in which it casts you as a navigator into an unknown world that you shall conquer is distressing. And “Ms.” Magellan—you actually could program her in previous versions of Magellan. In later versions of Magellan, if I remember correctly, you’re stuck with one voice. But originally, you could have this nice British lady who would tell you what you were doing, or you had these options of sound—like younger men, older men.
MW: We’re talking about the speed and velocity of these references, and yet I love what Miriam pointed out—we’ve got poets talking to each other across these books. And as Jason pointed out, poems inside these books pointing one to the next, teaching you how to read. It feels like there’s sometimes a secret cohesion, a secret public conversation.
MRH: In the case of Collier Nogues’s On the Other Side: Blue, so much of the book is about a personal loss. But then there are these moments when the poet is watching other people have losses and figuring out how to situate herself in relation to them—figuring out what she can and can’t access as someone who has also suffered great loss. She writes both about the before, during and after this awful experience of losing her mom. In the poem “The First Year in Wilderness,” each of the seasons has a section, and the section that’s “Fall” actually helped me to understand her book and her project.
My preparations have outlasted
so I have not only
the afterglow of you but also
little signs still
that you are bound for me.
It shows a commitment to intense experiences that are born out of this way of understanding time, and how people move both in life and in memory—how they come back around, and they live in a way that makes you pay attention to them even after they’re done physically living. This poem encapsulated her project.
LD: That book put a point on how difficult it is to be a writer when something happens that forces you to write about only it. One of the ways to deal with it is to bring it into the everyday—to show the loss in every single moment. And that’s how this book handles it. The mother, and the death of the mother, are everywhere and constantly popping up in places you wouldn’t normally expect. The poet is showing you the persistence of it.
MW: I haven’t talked a lot about Bad Daughter by Sarah Gorham, but this is a great book. It’s beautifully orchestrated, witty and smart, and it seems to drive across a couple of themes. And my God, can this woman end a poem. It’s just a great collection. In fact, this was one of the books that make me take pictures of lines with my iPhone and send them to people. And then I realized how inappropriate that was, because I didn’t even put text in the email. I would just send these pictures of intensely emotional lines, and then I had to backpedal. “I’m so sorry, that wasn’t, like, inappropriately invasive, this deep emotion that I’m tweeting at you.”
LD: Which lines?
MW: I really liked some of the epigraphs. She starts her book with, “In all desire to know, there is already a drop of cruelty.” That’s Nietzsche. Snap! Took that picture, sent it off. What a great way of thinking about the motive of what you’re doing—the ambition of the piece.
There’s a two-stanza poem, it’s about a page-and-a-half long, and it’s called “Passagiatta.” I had to look up the word. It’s the art of taking a walk in the evening, and it’s an Italian tradition.
LD: I love that there’s a word for that.
JS: It’s like an evening constitutional.
MW: Right, and there’s an art to it. I think “Passeggiata” is the key poem for the collection. It’s this imagining yourself being imagined by someone else as you’re moving across the horizon. There’s something about that kind of movement that feels like the heart of Gorham’s ambition. I got charmed by this poem. Three cheers for Sarah Gorham.
JS: I was going to say, also, that these books are beautiful. They’re gorgeously designed and very different from each other. The sensibility is smart.
LD: It’s individual, too, to the books.
JS: I did want to bring up Sidney Lea’s Young of the Year. I was not familiar with this poet at all, but he’s incredibly accomplished. This is his ninth book. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, had fellowships from Fulbright, Guggenheim, Rockefeller—I mean, absolutely amazing. This book was a very straightforward, very direct, intimate account of living in the wilderness and facing illness. I was thinking a lot of Stephen Dunn or Philip Levine, poets whose work you’ve read for a long time, so you’ve become really familiar with their stories and the narratives that they’re telling. It was nice to encounter a new set of those.
MRH: Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s Bear, Diamonds and Crane was one of the books that I swallowed quickly and then wanted more of. She uses sensory details to transmit experience in a way that’s striking, especially when she’s talking about color and food and the smaller memories that call up vivid scenes. They’re your entryway into the poems’ stories.
MW: Do you see anything now, as we’re nearing the end of this conversation, that you didn’t see at the start of the project?
JS: I expected to have more of an understanding of the press’s curatorial sense, but I just have a sense that the curation is well done.
MW: Is that a principle? Maybe you’ve articulated a principle that good curation erases itself—it’s both present and absent all the time.
JS: I think most of us are aware of curation in art exhibits, for example. But here, we’re talking about the press curating the selection of books and presenting them to us. This isn’t something we’re used to. None of us read like this, so I think it’s going to take a couple of times before we can say much more.
MW: I loved reading like this, quite frankly. One of the things that I see now that I didn’t was that I can hear echoes across these books, of the thematic concerns. The connection between Prufer and Gorham is startling and fascinating. I don’t know if that’s true of the world of poetry in the moment that we’re in, or maybe this press—
JS: I always thought of the authors in a press as similar to the Hollywood stable from the 1920s. Each studio has their own stable, so you have to have your blond starlet, you have to have your handsome man, you have to have your creepy scoundrel—a whole cast of characters who can perform whatever film you need at the moment. With a press, you want to have a mix of everyone who’s doing the cool stuff that’s being done in poetry now. And certainly I do feel that that’s what we see. There is enough similarity in that there is an overlap between the personal and the political, there is a movement in and out of intimacy—but all of those things feel like things you can say about any press.
LD: I’m thinking about the press more in terms of what I didn’t see in these four books. A former poetry teacher of mine said, “All poetry is about the same thing: life, death, dancing and fucking.” And it’s true. There’s a current of loss running through all of these books—there’s an attempt to deal with the state of the world—but that’s poetry. So I’m thinking about this press in terms of what’s not here. There is not a narrative confessional sense in the books that I read. Form-wise, there weren’t very many prose poems. Kevin Prufer’s book has a couple of poems that rhyme and are in meter, but otherwise, the ones that I read are all in free verse.
JS: We’re living in a moment after a lot of big battles. If you think about the 1980s—the language poets versus the confessional poets versus the slam poets. I think that for the last century, there’s been a lot of conflict, and now we’re kind of in this moment that’s nice to be in, where everyone has access to everything. I think that’s maybe some of what we’re feeling.
MW: In a way, the debate or the battle seems to be around this MFA versus NYC logic—whether MFAs are legit, whether creative writing can be taught, that seems like a location for some of the argument.
JS: But it’s a stupid argument, and the only people who participate already have MFAs.
MW: I would say there’s a parallel debate going on, and that’s over the rise of independent publishing, e-publishing, e-books. If you can publish your own stuff, (A) you don’t need the publishing house, and (B) you don’t need the MFA.
JS: But you never needed the MFA.
LD: I never thought the MFA helped you get published.
JS: I know a number of people who have gone to get MFAs after their books have come out so that they can get teaching jobs. An MFA is a teaching credential, if you want the professional component to it. If you want to learn to write poems, and there are people you want to study with, an MFA is one way to meet the people that you want to study with or to meet a peer group that is similarly invested in their own writing.
MW: Does everyone in this stack have an MFA? Is the role of Four Way—is that career credentialing?
JS: You’re asking, “Are we inside of academia?”
MW: Is there a necessary kind of gatekeeping?
LD: First of all, I don’t think we’re going to know, because many poets don’t put where they got their MFAs from, because they don’t think it matters. And there’s another reason, too—poets like to seem fully formed out of the universe, and not like they were trained in the art of poetry. But I chafe at the idea that there’s some kind of academic writing or MFA-quality poetry. I don’t buy that at all.
JS: I think that academia has become a patronage system, and that is fantastic. It’s a lot easier to have a university that gives you some academic freedom than it is to have a very wealthy person—
MRH: —or a prince—
JS: Or a prince that supports you. But it does create a system of winners and losers. There are people who have better jobs than others, but that’s a different issue, and it’s really an economic concern. I don’t think that it impacts the aesthetics.
MW: Then where are the aesthetic debates happening? Where are the people taking positions over aesthetics and taking their places in a particular group or a particular style?
JS: There have been two huge conversations over the aesthetics surrounding race and racism. There was the Helen Vendler/Rita Dove argument in the New York Review of Books over Rita Dove’s curatorial choices, and the debate between Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine. Now Claudia has a whole section on her blog in which people can write essays on race and poetry.
In terms of “you should be rhyming/no you shouldn’t,” or “deconstruction is an important way to write poems/no it’s not,” or “you can’t trust language/yes you can”—all of these larger aesthetic debates feel tired. The people who I think are doing interesting things and who are breaking prosodic molds are Matthew Dickman and David Kirby. Think of what Kathleen Graber did in Correspondence, in which she’s engaged in both incorporation and cooptation. She was doing something original with it. I don’t see where there’s room to have a fight about it.
LD: I think it’s odd, the very impulse to throw rocks at someone’s aesthetic or the way that someone goes about making their art. I think if you’re doing that, you have to start to ask yourself what you’re getting at and what’s in it for you. One of the senses I get from it is “this thing that’s happening out in the culture is not me, and where am I in this,” and I think that’s the primary motivating factor behind “now I am about to condemn this whole movement that’s going on in poetry that I’m defining.” People also get places by putting themselves into cliques and labeling themselves. “We’re the New York school.” And that’s purely a PR move.
MW: It’s a little critical nepotism.
LD: As Jason said, it’s a difficult gig to be a poet. You’re never going to be able to feed yourself off of your work alone. No one reads poetry; it’s hard to write. To have other poets coming out against your aesthetic is boring and mean-spirited. It’s hard enough for us as it is.
MW: The debates over aesthetics seem to have flattened, and what gets attention now is the debate around the institutionality of creative writing.
MRH: There are probably people who feel like they have not had enough exposure to what’s happening around the decisions that presses have to make. Maybe they feel like they have to turn to an MFA program or an academic community to get that exposure or understanding. But literary magazines can do more of that work.
MW: Yes, and that’s part of the motive of this conversation. We’re focusing on the editorial vision and the function of the small press in the American literary field a right now.
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