By Dan Rosenberg
Poets, lovers, poetry lovers, poet lovers:
They say kind things to each other, and throw down some engaging gauntlets. Like true poets, they cause problems joyfully.
To hear more from both, join us at this year’s Poetry Exchange Project Symposium at Tulane University, Nov 7-9. There will be no wrestling matches, but we make no promises one way or the other about people falling in love. A full schedule can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.
PXP: Let’s start with what’s interesting to you about the upcoming PXP symposium, or symposia in general.
Paul Killebrew: In what must have been a fit of unbearable humanity, a friend of mine once told me that she tried to embrace the awkwardness of herself and others as a form of tenderness. I enjoy thinking about the flip side of this sentiment, which is that social graces are a kind of brutality, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained. I’ve found that large-scale poetry events like PXP tend to be light on brutality and especially heavy on tenderness, which I think is great. The psychic cost of admission is very low, and people are approachable in the way a drowning person is approachable. We all talk despite ourselves, and with any luck the student/non-student distinction fades in the zenlike oneness of all poetry symposium attendees, and then we listen to the poems. I don’t think anyone is ready to listen to poems one hundred percent of the time, but I had the good fortune of attending the final group reading at last year’s PXP, and the spirit moved me. I’m looking forward to further movements. And to meeting Robert, whose books are so carefully painful and beautiful, like a soul expelled from its recesses.
Robert Fernandez: Well the symposiums were originally held by the archaic Greeks, Sappho and the like, and they were meant for an elite by an elite to focus and articulate the values of the elite. If we were really keeping in tradition, Paul and I might also wrestle and play a lyre then go to battle. Then come back and sing poems. They speculate that Sappho had schools and that the elite of the Greeks would send their elite daughters to Lesbos for training in the poetic arts. Then the elite daughters would go back to whatever island. There were competing “masters”–Sappho being one–like competing MFAs. And, like in an MFA, instructors would fall in love with their students (and vice versa), get jealous–and so we have cold fire, wind crashing on oaks, all the fury of the senses that Sappho captivates us with. They also speculate that she was head of a religious cult. That’s major pedantic and I apologize. Check out W.R. Johnson for more–he’s where I get a lot of this. What was celebrated was not only the values of the culture but the “beauty” and “splendor” of life. Sappho loves the “luxuriance” of life and says it gives her beauty and splendor. And so I like that we’ve come a long way, shedding and retaining certain aspects of this tradition–namely, as Paul points out, its elitism and demand that one be one of the few, the select, the anything-but-awkward. Let’s celebrate, instead, the luxuriance of life, which should be an occasion for, as Paul says, “tenderness” and humility. And fun. After all, poetry is joyous seeing and ecstasy, a standing outside of oneself. It’s praise and elegy, Eros and Thanatos, love and the senses. All of which Paul’s work celebrates, with his fine ear and keen intellect. And, if I have it right, Paul’s been (is) committed to justice, having worked for the justice project there in NO. That’s another part of the work of poetry I’m keenly interested in, its relationship to the question of justice. So, this Utopia, this no place that is our symposium, I’ll corrupt it with the root and blood of all corruption: cash money (Cash Money Millionaires being some of the best work to come out of NO, and Birdman a big part of my childhood): for $20, I challenge Paul to an oily, shiny wrestling match, with the song, great, inspiring, by Big Tymers, “Sunny Day,” playing in the background. Let us all, like a sunny day, SHINE.
PXP: Could you each talk a little bit about the panel discussions you’ll be participating in?
Anyway, before all that scanning of the Barnes and Noble shelves–now mostly ghost shelves–I was lucky enough to have poetry anthologies in the house. The Oxford Book of American Poetry (I’ve forgotten the dates on that one, but Lehman wasn’t editor yet) introduced me early on to Whitman and Dickinson and to the Modernists: Eliot and Stevens and Hughes. Then certain later poets: Bishop and Roethke and Wright. And outliers we don’t typically spend much time with anymore; to speak of particular poems: William Cullant Bryant’s “The Prairies,” Steven Crane’s “In the desert,” Allen Tate’s “The Wolves.” There were other anthologies that concentrated more on midcentury poets, and I was lucky to have those, too. So I’m an advocate of anthologies for young poets, even as I understand that the stakes are high for who gets seen and who gets silenced.
I wish it could be that we could all read full-length poetry books starting at age eight. Or that we started with Archilochus and worked our way down–that this was a requirement of the culture. But, hey, that’s not how things seem to be going–the early poetic wide-angle instructional mandate, for every child in the US. Poets find work, and work finds them. That is, I believe that work has a life of its own and calls out for and finds those it needs. Sets traps for them. Snares. Violent, hoary, light-soaked, visionary shag traps. Venus fly-traps for the poor, poor young poet, who gets entangled, or maybe stuck, with and in the sweet, dark, and luxuriant voices of the dead.
PK: Reading whole collections of poems from start to finish was huge for me. I didn’t start really writing poems until my last semester of college, when I took a workshop with Brian Henry in which he had us read a book of poems every week. In our first five weeks we read John Ashbery’s first five books. It was a psychedelic semester; I was also taking classes on Ulysses and American modernism, and I was doing an independent study on irony. But reading a book of poems the way I’d been listening to music, sitting there while the whole album plays, and maybe this works especially well with Ashbery, but loosening the reins on your mental state and opening the pores of reception, by now this is just what it is for me to read, but at that point it was something I’d never done.
At PXP I’m going to be on the panel on anthologies and am not at all sure what to say. I have few mature impulses. The Punk Rock Anthology of Bears, I Made Quesadillas: An Anthology of Stoned Babysitters, The 2014 Nepotism Anthology of Meager Benefits Exchange, White Men and Their Pain: An Anthology of Anthologies. But as Robert says, an anthology can be a lucky thing to have around, especially early on. It’s a pickle. When I lived in New York and went to things like the Whitney Biennial, it felt like I could find all sorts of things, though big group shows like that suffer from many of the shortcomings of poetry anthologies. Maybe what’s different for poetry anthologies is that the thing I pay most attention to is the table of contents–who’s in and who’s out. To paraphrase Tony Soprano, it’s like the poetry sports pages, and it seems like a lot of my teams are underdogs.
You know what’s really awesome, though? A good syllabus. Someone should start a blog where they just post poets’ syllabi for their creative writing and contemporary poetry classes. I would love to see more of those. It would be more instructive than most book reviews, more varied than most anthologies, and more revealing than most conversations. Will someone do this please?