Open Door

Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative

By Harriet Staff

Harriet recently had the pleasure of corresponding with the editors of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, published by CUNY’s Center for the Humanities. The series publishes a wide array of unpublished and forgotten documents ranging from poetry lectures and talks to poetry journals and poets’ journals to correspondence and critical prose. Each pamphlet in the series represents the archival work of graduate students and editors who have uncovered valuable primary documents that have, until now, collected dust in university archives, attics, and apartment buildings. The General Editor of the series, Ammiel Alcalay, and Contributing Editor Ana Božičević sat down with Harriet to discuss the goals of the series, how archival projects develop, what projects are currently underway, and the future of Lost & Found.

Harriet: With just two installments in the series, you’ve published a remarkable list of poets: Amiri Baraka, Ed Dorn, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, Muriel Rukeyser, Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, among many others. Given that these poets are seminal, mid-20th century poets, I was hoping you could talk about the scope of the series. Are there particular poets you’re seeking to publish, and what sorts of materials would you like to make available to readers?

Ammiel: The idea grew from several sources: as someone growing up in and around the so-called New American Poetry, I’ve felt for a long time that, despite so much material available, much more has not been available. And what is available has been codified in certain ways that obscure the enormity of the endeavor and its necessity for us now. The cultural cluster in question, with its befores and afters, is one of the great outpourings of human creativity, right alongside the Romantics, the Elizabethans, the Abbasids, the Tang Dynasty poets, and other sanctioned periods of “greatness.” As someone whose academic training is as a medievalist and a Middle East scholar, I’ve found that students involved in the contemporary often lack a range of skills that would be a prerequisite in many other fields, particularly relating to archival work, textual scholarship, and things of that nature. Given that our graduate students at CUNY work so hard, they don’t have enough opportunities to do the kind of research that graduate students ought to be doing. Because of that, we began thinking about ways to incorporate publishable projects into the structure of a seminar. Once the quality of the work people were doing became clear, I realized that we simply ought to publish this material ourselves. With the ingenuity of Aoibheann Sweeney and the rest of the staff at the Center for the Humanities, we realized it could be done. I want to stress that the qualities inherent in the project are not simply about the materials we publish but how we’ve come to do them: collective editing, very local printing (through Peter Viegas and the Graduate Center’s own print shop), and genius design by Megan Mangum, a design stressing both the ephemeral qualities of the chapbook and the seriousness of the scholarship. Most importantly, though, I feel that since people’s experiences are so mediated, I wanted to see if we could create the conditions for less mediated encounters, not only with the texts but with everything related to the texts. In this case, this sometimes includes the poets themselves (if they’re alive), family members, heirs, friends, estate representatives and a whole range of people with very different ideas about the meaning of the works in question. Each editor then is put into a situation that entails some real decision-making, a response that can also become quite a responsibility.

Ana: As I worked on annotating Diane di Prima’s essay on H.D., The Mysteries of Vision, the endlessness of these strata of materials, ephemera and correspondence and scholarly work, both formally and informally channeled, struck me full force. Di Prima has boxes upon boxes of treasures at home – letters, thoughts on poetics, her lectures from New College whose topics whet the appetite – Shelley, Paracelsus. In addition to her private archive, her materials can be found in university libraries all over the country. And that is just Diane. So even when materials belong to, as you say, seminal poets, when they are properly archived & housed, they often just sit there, at times uncatalogued but often simply unread, uncurated, unpublished. And then there are poets whose materials, either from lack of canonization or some other private or cultural informality, end up blown to the four corners. Along the way we heard a great/terrible story about an archive that was salvaged from a dumpster in front of the Strand, where it was unceremoniously dropped by the poet’s relatives who clearly didn’t know what they had on their hands. One of the virtues of Lost & Found is the project’s size-blindness: no note is too small, or rather: every note has the potential to be seminal, or to finally make seminality a little less seminal – a little more alive.

Harriet: Do you see the series as fulfilling specific goals or addressing particular concerns in the poetry world?

Ammiel: I’m not sure about the poetry world or what that exactly might consist of but a very specific goal has to do with a fairly drastic historical intervention — to try and contextualize these materials in the worlds from which they emerged and in which they were embedded. The first principle here that we’ve stressed is to “follow the person.” In other words, forget about schools and categories but delve into a person’s journals or correspondence or lectures and see whom they pay attention to, whom they refer to, whom they ignore, what they’re reading, what they’re not reading, and so on. This immediately provides a very different history than the ones we’re used to getting: all of a sudden you realize how closely connected so many of these writers who have been divided up into schools like different kinds of fish actually are. Another really major issue, and probably the most important one, has to do with bringing to light the thought of poets — through “extra-poetic” works, whether letters, journals, research projects, lectures, talks or other materials. This would signal a complete reassessment of how we think about Cold War policies regarding communication, propaganda, and the structuring and hierarchy of different kinds of knowledge, particularly, and ironically, in academia. Finally, though, this work is infectious — there is a tremendous amount of material to be brought to light and our hope, already borne out, is that by initiating this project, all kinds of other things would happen. We plan book length projects along with what I call a roving/modular/mobile imprint in which several presses, each with a different interest, might choose to co-publish a Lost & Found project.

Ana: I agree, reframing how these poets are perceived in the American canon (or off-off-canon) strikes me as a very significant endeavor. To come to it from a personal perspective – my education in American poetry occurred quite abruptly, since I grew up in an educational system that emphasized what here might be termed “world literature,” and I had to work hard to keep track of the proliferation of nomenclature for schools, movements, or just groups of friends (the unit that lies at the bottom of the best manifestos) in 20th century American poetry. These divisions & sub-divisions extend not-so-constructively into the discussion of & by poets of later generations, my peers or thereabouts, and frankly I think they slow down the discussion when they are received as a taxonomy. Naming is powerful and we should question how we name poets. Something di Prima emphasizes in her work is the personal, rather than collective, approach to poetic heritage – and following that trail back with her was incredibly rewarding. It did lead me to the collective eventually – to her peers and precedents – but by a different route. The scenic route traced by the person who built the road. It was a way to recontextualize her path on its cultural and political map… Once such work of re-classification that came out this year is Duncan’s amazing The H.D. Book. This is the sort of work I think Lost & Found is looking to do. Canonization strikes me as a process similar to beatification – an exceptional individual is made idol. I hope some of the materials we publish can reverse that process, and the reader may find themselves scratching their back with the poet-saint’s fibula. Somewhere between the dumpster and the reliquary is the living archive.

Harriet: How are projects proposed and how do you decide to publish a particular work?

Ammiel: Each one is different. The projects are student generated, along with the guest editors whom we have invited to the CUNY Graduate Center to visit classes, spend time with students, and do public events. Some of the projects have come out of a student’s long-standing interest in a writer: Brian Unger, for example, had lived in the Zen Center in San Francisco and knew Philip Whalen, so it was a very personal project. Diane di Prima had given me files of many of her lectures and I asked Ana if she would like to co-edit with me. During the seminar last semester I had suggested that everyone listen to some of Robert Duncan’s lectures on Penn Sound or the Naropa Audio Archives. Before I knew it a committee had formed and they decided to transcribe one of the Olson Memorial Lectures. Rowena Kennedy-Epstein and Stefania Heim had already been doing research on Muriel Rukeyser. Rowena discovered Rukeyser’s unpublished manuscript of a pre-Orwell Spanish Civil War novel (with a rejection letter attached) that Feminist Press will be publishing after she edits and annotates it. David Henderson, whose work is not nearly well known enough, had been a guest fellow and began a project, with Tonya Foster as editor, on an overview of the Umbra Arts Workshop, which he was a founding member of — before we knew it, the project seemed to be heading more towards a book length manuscript, calling itself Umbra Extensions, and exploring all the inter-related downtown movements including the Nuyorican poets. David, for example, has become a real presence and someone whom students have referred various queries to because of the encyclopedic range of movements and people at his fingertips. And that had been part of a larger vision that we have: the creation of the Living Archives Project, providing a space for older, non-academically affiliated artists to interact with academics, graduate students, and the public. So far, the growth has been pretty organic, and one thing has led to another, and another. Diane di Prima, for example, proposed that we start a newsletter, which we hope to actually do. One of its features would be a kind of bulletin board so that people going to various archives could trade work with each other. Archival work has always been kind of secretive, each person getting a scoop of one kind or another. We hope to make this kind of work much more collective, because there is enough for teams and teams of researchers to occupy themselves for many, many years.

Ana: Last fall Diane di Prima came to New York as a Lost & Found fellow, and David Meltzer will be coming this fall. Some connections are bound to come out of his visit. I also hope Graduate Center students will be able to do more local and national archival research and reconnaissance as well, and widen the field of possibilities for their/our projects. And that we can publish more, and with more variety in format. We’re only on Series II of Lost & Found chapbooks, and already there are a number of full-length book offshoots in the works – this seems like the logical next step. We are also yet to venture into the digital publishing world – we might be able to engage many more leads if we were to entertain that route. We shall see.

Harriet: By publishing such a wide array of poets, how do you go about clearing permission? Are there any specific difficulties with permissions you’ve had to surmount?

Ammiel: Part of our original goal has been to create some kind of model or template for dealing with estates and particularly with poets whose work — due to neglect, poverty, lack of a will, lack of family, racism, bias of one kind or another, and any number of other issues — gets lost. While we haven’t yet accomplished that, we have been helpful in resolving some estate issues already. The good will shown throughout has been extraordinary. Part of what I mentioned before as “response” and “responsibility” comes up here: in academia, scholars are subject to peer review. In these cases, the scholars, our students, are subject to what I would call kin review. A close family member may be very suspicious or not be happy with the way their sibling or mother or deceased companion has fared in the literary world. They will want to see an authenticity of approach, a real love and respect for the work under consideration, and some sense of the personal complexities that might involve. I would like to think that we are also teaching an ethics of scholarship here and I think that has been reflected in the relative ease with which we’ve been able to go about things.

Harriet: In the past few years we’ve seen the publication of Jack Spicer’s Collected Poems (which included many poems previously unavailable to readers), Duncan’s legendary H.D. Book, the publication of two journals by John Wieners, Tim Dlugos’s Collected Poems, to name only a few poets who have had large portions of their work unavailable until recently. Do you see any other poets particularly in need of rediscovery?

Ammiel: These have all been most welcome but part of the impetus behind this project also came from a great dissatisfaction with some of the telephone book-like volumes of collected poems that provide little or no context for the poets in question. I think all poets are in constant need of rediscovery so that their work remains active and not sanctified. I think this happens as a matter of course as younger people have more involved encounters with these poets through actually handling original materials. While I don’t like to fetishize the object, there is no doubt that encountering Jack Spicer’s work, for example, as it originally came out, provides a very different experience than does the Collected Poems. And this has often been true historically, we’re just less used to it in our own time.

Ana: I think there’s material enough just from the archives of the poets we’ve published to keep Lost & Found busy for years – and more are popping up every day. We often have queries from “people with papers.” Soon we’ll be launching a website with a forum for just such leads. One day we hope to have the capacity to seriously consider them all – as it is, we hope to establish a kind of lead clearinghouse, where a student might click on and with a poet’s work & story. And there are so many other poets, so many players on the local scenes that surrounded the more well-know writers, whose thoughts might shed new light on this period in American poetry. I hope we get to some of those soon, too. Ammiel has this great practice in class where he brings in copies of mags and chapbooks from the 60s and 70s to facilitate the students’ encounter with the work as it was published – we had a number of student-poet-scholars sitting in class last semester, and I know we all clicked with the work, and the poets we were reading, more profoundly for it. I learned about poets I hadn’t known before, like Mary Norbert Korte & William Everson, that took me on some literary fishing expeditions. I hope we can generate a kind of inter-generational rediscovery supernova with the Lost & Found projects. I don’t feel that there is anything precious, in the fetishizing sense, about any of these legacies, though – it’s not that the work is neglected, it lives – it’s that the times are neglectful.

Harriet: What are some forthcoming additions to the series that you are particularly excited about?

Ammiel: There are lots of things to be excited about: work is being done on John Wieners; there is a Lorine Niedecker project in the next series, and possibly a Langston Hughes Spanish Civil War related project. More Ed Dorn (Olson Memorial Lectures transcribed and annotated by Lindsey Freer, and a film-script that Dorn began with Stan Brakhage, presented by Kyyle Waugh), and more Diane di Prima, and more Robert Duncan, always! There is a project involving Michael Rumaker, edited by Megan Paslawski. Rumaker is truly a pioneering writer (Spyten Dyvel has recently reprinted one of his out of print classics, A Day and A Night at the Baths) but not at all well known enough; Megan’s project will probably concentrate on his correspondence with Olson, Duncan, Creeley and others following the break up of Black Mountain College where he had been a student. There is often a surprise that comes through at the last minute: Bradley Lubin plans to look over the voluminous Robert Duncan correspondence with the great film critic Pauline Kael, a prospect which is exciting just to think about. As we said, some of these projects are already spinning off into book length projects, such as Claudia Moreno Pisano’s complete Ed Dorn/Amiri Baraka correspondence, and also collections of Diane di Prima and Robert Duncan’s lectures. We’re trying to keep the structure loose, to accommodate things as they get discovered.

Originally Published: June 20th, 2011