What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde
Daniel Kane. Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2003. 185 pp.
I find this book valuable for a number of reasons.
It’s written in a conversational style, reflecting the relaxed tone of Kane’s interviews with 12 writers including (as example) Ann Lauterbach, Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, John Ashbery, Lisa Jarnot, and Robert Creeley.
Kane recommends one or two books as good starting places for readers not familiar with each author profiled.
He then presents a poem and asks its author to discuss it. That discussion evolves into a longer conversation, prompted by a series of insightful questions.
A few excerpts:
Daniel Kane on coming to terms with avant-garde writing: “… a worthwhile and intellectually challenging agenda should not preclude the new reader from having fun. My emphasis on enjoyment is not intended to deny the difficulty inherent in these poems; in fact, the complexity is often part of the fun. Read the work of the avant-garde writers featured here (and others) and enjoy the surface surprise and music of their language. Once you’ve done that, you can move on to consider the vast, complex, and wonderful implications of their thinking on what it means to be you, here, thinking, feeling, and laughing” (p. 21)
Rae Armantrout: “If we are going to encourage more people to read avant-garde poetry, I think we have to promote the spirit of play in it. People think that the avant-garde is just all serious, grim guys marching behind Ezra Pound. But I think that if you look at some of the work of the people we’ve mentioned … you’ll see that it’s very playful. There’s a sense that poetry can be fun, and that it should be heard, be read aloud” (p. 47)
Fanny Howe: “I think for me poems are sentences, which may be why they are getting shorter. I love a complete sentence, and all that it contains in the way of balance and aspiration. I love prose sentences. But a whole poem of mine is a sentence composed of sound-lines (bars), each line being the equivalent of a complex word. Each sound-line floats in tandem with the next one. Each one is a word. The group of sound-lines or words forms a sort of sentence which is a poem” (p. 71)
Kenneth Koch: “Schools of poetry hardly matter—it’s friendship and individual talent” (p. 97)
Michael Palmer: “Poetry itself, when it is more than verse and more than a display of creative cleverness, is also a dangerous place, a site of slippages and folds, of irrational commands from the melos, where a multiplicity of meanings may be joined in a word, and where the nothing beneath is never far from the surface—a place, in other words, where the arbitrary and the necessary play out an intense negotiation concerning the possible” (p. 144)