Poetry News

Richard Kostelanetz, the Poet, Talks About Poetry

By Harriet Staff

At Dichtung Yammer, an online journal for which dialogue around poetry is primary, Richard Kostelanetz talks to Thomas Fink! Questions include "Are you or are you not… 'a poet'?" and "Why might one call your poetry 'poetry'?" Responses are vast and varied. For instance:

[Richard Kostelanetz:] ...Recalling that I once wrote about wanting to be “the most inventive poet ever in America,” perhaps I should have said “inventive un-poet.” For that last claim I’d surely have no competitors.

It’s been my opinion since the late 1970s or so that formal invention defines the great American tradition in poetry. Around that time I first proposed an anthology of “The American Tradition of Poetry” that would concentrate upon technical inventions in the machinery of the art. It would include the more inventive poems of John Wilson, John Fiske, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Vachel Lindsay, E.E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, Eugene Jolas, Melvin Tolson, Bob Brown, Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac, John Ashbery, John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, as well as those contemporaries extending this indigenous tradition–in sum, a succession of selections that should, like innovative art itself, surprise as it persuades, which is incidentally a good measure of the strongest radical anthologies. Though I vowed a few years ago not to edit any more anthologies, this I could be persuaded to do, because the theme remains important to me. Were I to include my own poetry in such a book, the level of inventions in my poetry could be easily weighed against historical competition.

My definition of poetry is the concentration of the materials of language, in contrast to fiction which, even in minimal forms, suggests narrative. Thus, say, “Psychiatry.” is a one-word narrative, especially if crucially followed by a period, which the British more appropriately call a Full Stop. In contrast again, essays define external realities usually in prose but sometimes just with visual materials, such as photographs. While these definitions aren’t wholly exclusive, they do seem appropriate for perhaps 99% of writing known to me, including my own efforts in all these genres or, should I say, categories.

Also as a native New Yorker, who spends nearly all his days here, I consider myself fairly sociable and for the past decade have lived adjacent to a subway entrance that gets me to Union Square in twenty minutes. Nonetheless, I don’t hustle any “poetry scene” and don’t attend gatherings of people who call themselves “poets.” As I don’t do standup declamations, more commonly called “poetry readings,” and don’t much like them, I’ve no need to go to them. I’m a parttime poet with work that I hope exists fulltime surely in print, now additionally over the Internet. (How do you divide or apportion different activities in your life, I was once asked. Poetry 100%, fiction 100%, prose 100%, I replied.)

Check out the full interview at Dichtung Yammer.

Originally Published: May 10th, 2018