Poetry News

Reviewing What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know): Interviews from ‘The Poetry Project Newsletter’

By Harriet Staff
Anselm Berrigan, What is Poetry, cover

At Jacket2, William J. Harris reviews What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know): Interviews from ‘The Poetry Project Newsletter’ (1983–2009) (Wave Books, 2017), edited by Anselm Berrigan. "[T]his big white book edited by Anselm Berrigan paints a clear picture of the Lower East Side avant-garde poetry scene," writes Harris. More:

It is only recently, perhaps, since I started living in New York and going to the Poetry Project, that I have come to understand the importance of the Poetry Project and the Lower East Side. In All Poets Welcome Daniel Kane observes: “While the West Village would generally remain a center for the avant-garde the first half of the twentieth century, the postwar era saw a gradual shift of the downtown artistic community toward the Lower East Side, particularly the section north of Houston Street and below Fourteenth Street, bounded by Fourth Avenue on the west and the East River on the east.”[1] Starting in the 1960s, the Lower East Side was a percolator for the American avant-garde — not just the poetry avant-garde — both in terms of individuals and institutions. Some of the institutions that sprang up were the Living Theatre, the Vision Festival, La MaMa Experimental Theater, and the Judson Church Poetry Theater. The figures included such luminaries as Sam Shepard, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Merce Cunningham, Archie Shepp, and many others. Unfortunately, the Poetry Project is one of the few institutions still remaining; it is one of the key countercultural institutions where the reshaping took place and continues to take shape today. As Eileen Myles says of the Project in the December 14, 2016 issue of The Village Voice: “It stills burns and it still breathes.”[2]  

The playful title of Berrigan’s book suggests not only the importance of poetics, but that it is always a collective, highly personal, undertaking. In the December 2016 Newsletter, he observes, “For some people that’s talking about composition and for other people that’s talking about sources; for others that’s talking about some combination of both. For some folks it’s about their life and moving over here and talking about their work and how that slides into allowing writing to happen.”[3] Or as Amiri Baraka declares in the pages of The New American Poetry: “I must be completely free to do just what I want, in the poem”[4] — that is, the new poetics conceives of poetry as an open field. Instead of basing their poetics on traditional practice, they base it on the avant-garde tradition of making it new and situating it in the local environment and the self. All these radical poetic schools are products of or influenced by the New American Poetry poetics and that was the aesthetic that the Poetry Project embodied and taught. Eileen Myles says: “I truly did grow to be a poet and intellectual here. I feel largely created by the city and the institution of the Poetry Project.” ...

Read on at Jacket2.

Originally Published: October 11th, 2018