This piece is about 12 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Cynthia Hogue, Elisabeth Frost and Jacket magazine 2007.
Cynthia Hogue has published nine books, including a chapbook and five collections of poetry, most recently Flux (New Issues Press 2002), and The Incognito Body (Red Hen Press 2006). In addition to Innovative Women Poets, her co-edited first edition of H.D.’s The Sword Went Out to Sea, by Delia Alton (UP of FL, 2007) has just been published.
Elisabeth Frost is the author of The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (Iowa, 2003). In addition to co-editing Innovative Women Poets, she has published poetry, essays, reviews and interviews widely.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s poetry books are Skin Museum and Aquiline, both published in Japan.
Further biographical information is provided at the foot of this interview.
Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (Cynthia Hogue and Elisabeth A Frost, University of Iowa Press, 2006) contains 14 interviews with American female poets, preceded by brief introductory remarks and with sample poems/excerpts appearing after the interview transcripts. The featured poets are Gloria Evangelina Anzaldua, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Jayne Cortez, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Fulton, Barbara Guest, Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Alicia Ostriker, Sonia Sanchez, Leslie Scalapino, and C.D. Wright.
I contacted Cynthia Hogue and Elisabeth A. Frost via email to see whether they might be interested in a brief interview concerning their book. To my delight, they agreed. The result appears below.
Hogue and Frost’s stated (in the Introduction to their book, p. 8) desire to present the work and commentary of various female poets “from her own perspective and in her own words” (versus a critical summary of such work) led me to believe an “interview” with them would be more consistent than a “review” of the book. Thus, below the reader may hear from the authors in their own words from their own perspectives about this important contribution to poetry scholarship. Professors Hogue and Frost collaborated with each other in answering the interview questions; therefore, the answers which appear are their “joint” responses.
— Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Aichi, Japan
Q1: What prompted you to create Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews?
A: We were looking for a different kind of project to undertake together. We had both done a number of interviews — in a few instances, we had interviewed the same poet — and it was Beth’s brainchild to assemble our interviews as a book. We had no idea how much work it would be, but we both thought it was a fresh approach to the poetry anthology, to approach the work through the poet’s own thinking, rather than through a critic’s eyes.
Interviews are an interesting genre. One has to prepare carefully, know the work deeply, and in face to face interviews, come in with a set of prepared questions but allow the interview to unfold and add or drop questions accordingly, even intuitively, following the conversation as it develops, letting the interviewee take the lead and open up new avenues one might not have anticipated. Such an interview can be profound, both useful and fascinating, and all interviews — even those done (or completed) over the internet (Claudia Keelan’s interview with Alice Notley is a good example of that) — can develop in this way. Interviews proffer different insights into a poet’s work than scholarly essays. We say different, rather than better, because the one often complements or supplements the other, rather than replaces it. An interview can give a work’s context, situate it, offer startling information, and come upon a discovery, on the poet’s part, of intentionality — that kind of unconscious realization that dances through the discussion of the conscious intent, which a poet might not realize until she is asked to think about her poem in the interview.
Q2: Could you point out how this book is different from other books currently available on the topic of innovative women’s poetry ?
A: Our book presents selected poems alongside substantial, full-length literary interviews. We were fascinated by the idea of interplay between the voice of the writer — captured in conversation, rather than in the manner of the more formal “artist’s statement” or essay — and the work itself. All are useful, but the dialogue seemed to us especially important precisely because some of the poets we included were less well-known than their work merited — in fact, several we chose because their work had been neglected, and others we chose because the poet had been relegated to a niche (labeled as this or that sort of poet), and we wanted to intervene in such categorizations. In effect, the poet introduces herself, and in each case, the way she represents herself and thinks about her work offers crucial insights into her poetry. We wanted to counter-balance the focus on form that tends to dominate discussions of experimental writing — we wanted the voice of the poet to be right there, alongside the work, and in dialogue with the other poets in the anthology as well — and we also hoped that unexpected common ground would emerge.
At the time when we started this project — around the summer of 2003 — there were just a handful of anthologies devoted to innovative writing by women. The ground-breaking collections that inspired us were Mary Margaret Sloan’s Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (Talisman, 1998), Maggie O’Sullivan’s Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the U.K. (Reality Street, 1996), and Claudia Rankine’s and Juliana Spahr’s Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (Wesleyan, 2002). Of course, we didn’t want ours to rehearse what these anthologies had already accomplished, but rather create something quite different, to supplement and reapproach definitions of “innovative.”
We were especially interested in the power of juxtaposition — of putting between two covers works by writers not usually read or anthologized together — so we decided to include a range of aesthetics and subject positions. We wanted to include works that were culturally/politically edgy, as well as works that disrupted formal conventions. We framed the poets in relation to each other rather than to any particular school, in order to question assumptions behind classifying gestures. We asked in this volume: What about the ways in which speaking from, or about, the margins of power in contemporary society constitutes a radical intervention and paves the way for a radical poetics? Thus, it was a serendipitous coincidence that the book opens with Gloria Anzaldúa, whose pioneering explorations of interlingual writing and code-switching are significant both politically and poetically. After considering different ways to arrange the poets — chronologically, by “school,” etc. — we opted for alphabetical order, as the least determinative method of organization, in that it is arbitrary. That our anthology opens with a lesbian, Mestiza poet, by the way, signals a difference from Cynthia’s earlier, co-edited anthology, We Who Love to Be Astonished, which included no identifiable lesbian writer.
In addition, the Language-associated and New York School poetry we included (Berssenbrugge, DuPlessis, Fraser, Guest, Howe, Mullen, Notley, Scalapino) is so often defined mainly by the formal ruptures that characterize it, whereas the Analytic Lyric-associated, feminist poetry (Fulton, Ostriker) is so often defined thematically. We wanted implicitly to interrogate such approaches. Although it’s true that Language-associated writers are most often discussed in terms of formal disruptions, that approach to their various projects relies on a very partial definition — one that overlooks how politically nuanced their works are. Nor, for that matter, is a Black Arts-influenced poet (Cortez, Sanchez) or a prophetic (mystical) poet (Wright, Notley) necessarily writing a theme-based poem primarily. So we selected poems that illustrate how visionary (even spiritual) these poets are, as well as how visually- and/or musically-driven their poetics are.
Q3: It must have been difficult to decide on which poets to include among the many worthy female poets working today who fit the aims of your project. Can you explain what influenced your selections?
A: Yes, we have just discussed the why, but the how was very hard, because inevitably, editors of projects like this — we among them — have to drop some poets in order to include others. There were poets excluded whom we would have preferred to include. We discussed having fewer pages of poetry, as well as excerpting from the interviews to make each one shorter, but in the end, we opted for fewer poets with more pages devoted to each, because we thought the substance would be more significant and the project’s contribution greater. Of course, it goes without saying that anthologies like ours always run into issues of space and cost, which are a different kind of limit on a project. What finally helped us make our decisions was the vision that we developed as we began our work together. We wanted the anthology to be deeply, rather than superficially, multiethnic; we wanted it to be formally diverse; and we wanted to include an earlier generation on which our own generation and the next are building.
The book is dedicated to the two poets in the anthology, Barbara Guest and Gloria Anzaldúa, who died during the editing process. That two such different poets were included in our anthology is indicative of the kind of iconoclastic vision driving our choices. Some of the work we wanted this anthology to do was to cross borders, to unsettle and enlarge readers’ understanding of the notion of the “innovative”: an idea which is not one, we might say. We decided to counterpose differing kinds of experimentation — Black Arts, Mestiza, the Analytic Lyric, New York School, Second Wave Feminist, and Language-associated — in order to generate dialogue and discussion. It was exciting and scary because we were disrupting received categories. We had to maintain a delicate balance in our redefining act, and we were very strategic in our purpose. We relied on Erica Hunt’s notion of a poetics of contiguity — building connections among various schools of oppositional writers — to theorize the broad-ranging aesthetics that determined our editorial selection. What we most hoped for was that this book would illustrate a poetics of contiguity in action. We also hoped that that action would extend to both the classroom and the community of poetry readers.
Q4: Your book points out that some interviews were conducted for the purposes of the book whereas others were existing interviews in some cases updated or lightly edited by you. Could you comment on the editing of interviews and related challenges?
A: Editing interviews is tricky. In most cases, the actual interviews took place over at least a couple of hours, and of course the word-by-word transcription of any conversation is far less coherent than one might hope! Since both of us had conducted interviews in the past (some of which are included in the book), we were familiar with the challenge of the genre of the “literary” interview (as opposed to the journalistic style) — you need to keep intact the spontaneity of conversation, while editing as minimally as possible for clarity. Also, because we were compiling the interviews within one volume, we had to be sure that they matched in terms of style and length. We took some liberties. As one example, in the Harryette Mullen section, we had the choice between two interviews with Mullen — the one Beth had conducted (which we decided to use), and Cynthia’s longer interview, which we did not use for reasons of space, but from which we spliced in some passages in order to include conversation about the full range of Mullen’s work.
Originally, we had intended to conduct new interviews to supplement recent ones we had both done, but after a year’s preliminary work on the volume — and sudden illnesses in both our families — we realized that such an undertaking would make the project unworkably prolonged. Wherever we could, we conducted new interviews or tapped someone we knew to be conducting one (or, as in the case of Cristanne Miller’s older interview with Alice Fulton, Cynthia updated with questions by email, to include discussion of Fulton’s new work). We had tapped Keating for a new interview with Anzaldúa, who was at work on a collected poems that would have redefined the typographical presentation of her interlingual poetry. She died — quite suddenly, unexpectedly — the month that Keating was scheduled to travel to California to meet with her! A very sad loss in so many ways. In the book you can see that we had to italicize all the Spanish because of copyright laws that didn’t cover Anzaldúa’s more recent spoken intentions. She wanted not to use italics at all, it seems, because she had come to believe that this created a hierarchy of languages and marked Spanish as the “other” (or “minor”) tongue. It’s a fascinating and important issue, but not one our volume could address. Unfortunately, we had no choice other than to reproduce her poems as they appear in the existing edition of Borderlands/La Frontera.
The most unexpected experience of conducting a successful interview turned out to be the most moving for us both, the interview with Kathleen Fraser and Barbara Guest. As a very young poet newly arrived in New York, Fraser had met the older Guest, and they had struck up a lifelong association and friendship. We see this interview as one of the most central to the book — we decided to close with it, because of the way it speaks to the importance of women artists’ support of one another over time. Cynthia was unable to include, for reasons of space, her solo interview with Fraser, who generously joined us in the conversation with Guest (some portion of the earlier interview with Fraser is collaged in, as is noted in that section). Guest had not given an interview in nearly a decade, and was famously spare of word (as is clear in the interview). A few months later she suffered a massive stroke from which she never fully recovered. She died in 2005, just as we were completing the volume. So it turned out that this was a very important conversation to record. It was such a rich experience — the four of us spoke intensively for over four hours — and we tried to convey a sense of the supportive friendship and mutual respect that Fraser and Guest shared, because it’s such an important aspect of literary networks. As these poets attest, women must work to keep the doors open for the next generation (and as in Guest’s case, for the previous generation falling into neglect!). We must look out for each other and help each other — early and late.
[ Editor’s note: You can read a version of this interview in Jacket 25. — J.T. ]
Q5: Do you have any advice for academics who might be brave enough to attempt a major project such as this one?
A: Whatever kind of project you decide to undertake, you should choose poets whose works you feel passionate about, since you will be living with these works for years, literally. Have a vision for your project that is both practical — publishers always want a project that will have market appeal — and philosophically sound. And think in terms of making a contribution: What hasn’t been done? What important poets have received less attention than their poetry merits? You want to find a niche without finding yourself out in the cold, marginalized. Most of all, have fun! Such projects can be overwhelming, but if you believe in the work, you will love to see the project beginning to take shape. When we finished, we were astonished at how much we had done, and how different the volume was from others. We had taken our inspiration from such volumes as Women Poets in the 21st Century, edited by Rankine and Spahr, an anthology that was the first to interface postmodern women poets of differing aesthetics, but we wanted to offer a rather different approach. An anthology coming after ours, edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker (forthcoming from Iowa), conceived of a fresh approach by pairing younger poets with older poets who had mentored and/or inspired them, which resonates with the last interview in our anthology.
It’s important to read around, in order to see what presses are publishing, and to submit a proposal and assess interest before undertaking so much work. And, for academics, publish your monograph first, if at all possible. To be pragmatic: Editors of anthologies are not tenurable at many universities and colleges, but these projects can often take your time and energy for years. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do! That includes finances as well — permissions for anthology reprintings can be numerous and very costly.
Q6: Would you care to comment on the relationship you had with your publisher during the project work, and/or what the process was like as far as finding a publisher?
A: Finding a publisher was not hard — we were fortunate. Only a few presses publish anthologies such as we had in mind — Wesleyan, Iowa, Alabama, to name a few offhand — and Beth had just published a critical study with Iowa (The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, 2003). Because she had had a good experience working with that press, Iowa was our first choice to query, and they were interested. We went from there. In addition to being a renowned press for new poetry, Iowa has begun a focus on innovative women poets. Linda Kinnahan published her most recent study with Iowa (Lyric Interventions: Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse, 2004) around the time we were considering presses. Also, the series Contemporary North American Poetry (edited by Alan Golding, Lynn Keller, and Adalaide Morris) recently moved from the University of Wisconsin Press to Iowa — so there is a lot going on there. The relationship has been very warm, and very personal. We were admittedly lucky, but in fact, we had researched what different presses were publishing, and we strategically targeted a few of those to query. It so happened that our first choice was the best press for our project, and they were not only interested but truly excited about what we were up to. The timing seemed right, and we have been pleased with Iowa’s thoroughness and attention.
The main challenges for both us and our publishers had to do with the visually innovative work. This was a hard book to typeset and to design! In some cases the poems had to be scanned directly from existing volumes (some of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s poems, for example) because the works were out of print and there were no digital images available. This caused in some cases some distortion of the work on the page — which, given that the poems are visually innovative, was a real problem. We wish that we had twice the page space to do justice to those visual works. Even so, though, we thought the actual page design that Iowa came up with was gorgeous.
Another aspect of the book about which we had inspired exchanges with Iowa was the cover art. Kathleen Fraser was at work on a collaborative project with the artist Hermine Ford — a distinguished abstract painter whose recent work is infused with the influence of Roman mosaics (Ford goes to Italy every year) — and suggested we contact Ford. What Ford sent us was so striking that we knew we had found the cover art — but she went a step further. She did a mock up of a cover design — in effect, she designed much of the cover — and we sent the mock up off to Iowa. They loved it, too.
What really added to our experience was that our editor, Holly Carver, was if anything more excited about our anthology than we were. There is a staff of formidably strong, generous women at Iowa (and not to discriminate, we began with our wonderful male acquisitions editor, Prasenjit Gupta, who has since left the press), and we came to know and respect many people there while working on our book. Times are hard these days for university presses, and in our experience, editors really have to believe in their work to keep doing it. We came to appreciate that aspect of our relationship with Iowa — the generosity that characterizes their working relations with their authors — very deeply.
Q7: What important ground do you think still needs to be covered by academics studying innovative poetry by women?
A: First off, since our choices of “innovative” poets are eclectic, to say the least, there is certainly a need for an anthology that includes poets we had to exclude — we could list enough for a whole new collection, Book 2. So an extension of this kind of project would be very publishable, especially since the interview format was itself an innovation. Further, though, we were very nation-specific. This was because we were covering a particular era of American poetry during which there was an aesthetic segregation from which our poetics is only beginning to recover. In its necessary focus on the U.S., our anthology excluded a tremendous range of poets from other English-speaking (especially postcolonial) countries who could have been usefully included. What would such an anthology look like? What sorts of different issues, or parallel insights, might emerge if someone worked along the lines of O’Sullivan’s Out of Everywhere, but featured interviews?
Another angle to explore is visual poetics. Several of the poets interviewed in our anthology work seriously at the borders where text and image interfuse and overlap, and they discuss that aspect of their work in the interviews. We think some of the most exciting new work coming out is being done in visual poetics — not to mention digital poetry. An anthology that takes those borders as its point of departure would be extremely useful, and might go into more profound detail than we were able to. We wanted to highlight such crossovers as creative processes, but that was only one aspect of our collection.
Finally, we were anthologizing a particular generation — just prior to and at the first edge of the baby boomers. Some of them had for most of their writing lives received much less attention than their work deserved, and some of them had received attention but had never been placed in conversation with other, or differently, innovative women poets. The next generation is doing a different kind of work, and an anthology that includes younger poets with poets of an older generation, as well as one that pays attention to a postcolonial, global English-speaking poetics, would be extremely timely.
Q8: What’s next on the horizon as far as your own personal projects?
A: Oh, God! Lots going on for us both. Beth is currently looking for a publisher for a volume of prose poetry (All of Us) and is finishing up another collection (L Travels) of more lyric, disjunctive poetic series. She’s also working on another scholarly book. Called In Another Tongue: Image, Text, and the Body in Contemporary Feminist Art and Poetry, it addresses poets and visual artists since the 1980s who employ cross-genre forms and who focus on corporeal experience — so the book will explore the intersection between materiality in the work of art (text/image crossovers) alongside questions about bodily materiality. (There is some overlap with our anthology — for example, a chapter on Leslie Scalapino.) The newest work for Beth is a sort of poetic-prose memoir about aging and illness, emerging from her caring for her mother through a series of age-related health issues. This work is very new, but it feels vital and potentially useful to many women facing similar challenges.
Cynthia is finishing her sixth collection of poems, Or Consequence, and has been conducting a series of interviews with Katrina evacuees (she used to live in New Orleans and has felt the destruction of that great city very deeply). She is writing talk poems from these interviews, which are in the interviewees’ voices, from her/his perspective (with permission). These poems are in essence collaborations with the interviewee, and each has been crucially engaged in the drafting stages of the poems to date. Cynthia is working as well with photographer Rebecca Ross on what looks to become a book-length project. It currently has a title that borrows from Lesley Wheeler’s theory of poetic voice (what she terms “voiceprints”), Voice-Prints: a Katrina Elegy. She’s also working on a book-length translation project with her husband, Sylvain Gallais, from French. She has begun to write memoir essays, and continues, occasionally, to write a critical-scholarly essay or two, as projects come up, and might collect them. Right now, there’s no time for that, though!
Q9: Could you comment on the process of collaborating with each other on this project?
A: A collaborative project — whether it’s writing or editing — has to take the personalities of the two collaborators into account. We were associates before we took on editing Innovative Women Poets together — we’d been meeting at conferences for almost a decade — but we hadn’t known each other extremely well. Now we know each other so well! At the beginning of the process, each of us had a lot of unexpected stresses in our lives (mainly unexpected family illness), and what we had planned to do ambitiously in the abstract we had to reconsider in practical “real-time.” We also couldn’t meet to work together — Cynthia had moved across the country to Arizona — so we opted to split the manuscript into two parts, and each of us oversaw our own part until we assembled the book. We also divided the labors by alternating who oversaw each stage of the project. That worked well, because it gave each of us, at different stages, breathers (we both have busy academic schedules, of course). At each stage, we would take stock and reassess. We shared the writing and revising of the introduction — Beth starting it, Cynthia furthering it, and so forth — until we had a draft, which we sent back and forth by email. That process worked very well. We also shared the proofing. Beth received the proofs first, then Fed-Exed them on to Cynthia, so that the whole set received two full proofs (though we advise hiring a professional proofreader, as we nonetheless missed errors, to our dismay). We very much hope that our volume is reprinted so that we can get the help of a professional proofreader to catch the errors.
Collaboration is a delicate business because it involves negotiation and compromise. We both know of some very collegial relations souring from differences arising during a collaborative project, and we were determined that that would not happen to us. In fact, we became fast friends, and a kind of passing friendship became a deep and abiding one, full of both affection and mutual respect.
Q10. To conclude our interview, might you care to summarize your overarching vision as far as Innovative Women Poets?
A. A vision emerged, intuitively, almost despite our conscious intent. We began our work on the volume around the time that the U.S. invaded Iraq. So, for instance, we were moved to include the prophetic despair that permeates Alicia Ostriker’s Volcano Sequence, a book-length poem that is distinct in Ostriker’s work (even though it is not necessarily characteristic of her larger body of poetry, it is definitely characteristic of her poetic ethos). There are recurring concerns with peace, resistance, and witness — and also with spirituality. The passages from Notley’s Désamère — a profoundly visionary epic — bear witness to the ravages of the Viet Nam war, while Scalapino discusses in her interview the way that protest was erased from media coverage during the first Gulf War. The excerpt from Susan Howe’s Nonconformist’s Memorial is among her most spiritually-driven work. In a more overtly “political” mode, DuPlessis’ “Draft 52: Midrash” creates a dialogue with Adorno’s famous assertion that there can be no literature after Auschwitz. The examples really abound. Many of the selections (and the conversations) contemplate the consequences of violence, and thus share — if not an aesthetics — common political ground.
Our book launch at Fordham University last winter (through Poets Out Loud, the reading series Beth directs at Fordham) was perhaps the best illustration of the value of creating a confluence of differing formal investigations revelatory of shared concerns, what we term in our introduction a poetics of contiguity. What happened at the book opening was nothing we could have planned: All six poets who read, four from the volume — Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Alicia Ostriker, Leslie Scalapino; and two poet-interviewers, Jeanne Heuving and Claudia Keelan — read in the spirit of a thoughtful and eloquent opposition to the Iraq War (the “surge” had just been announced). The reading was — poet after poet — building a groundswell of voices speaking for social conscience and for renewed commitment to peace: a “poetic” surge, if you will! This was our vision, though we had only come fully to articulate it in our introduction to the evening. We had not tried to orchestrate anything so specific. Yet there it was — a testament to the power and vision compelling these poets, and we hope, our volume.
Cynthia Hogue has published nine books, including a chapbook and five collections of poetry, most recently Flux (New Issues Press 2002), and The Incognito Body (Red Hen Press 2006). In addition to Innovative Women Poets, her co-edited first edition of H.D.’s The Sword Went Out to Sea, by Delia Alton (UP of FL, 2007) has just been published. Among her honors are Fulbright and NEA Fellowships, the H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University and residency awards from the Wurlitzer and MacDowell artist colonies. She is the Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry in the Department of English at Arizona State University (USA).
Elisabeth Frost is the author of The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (Iowa, 2003). In addition to co-editing Innovative Women Poets, she has published poetry, essays, reviews and interviews widely. She has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation-Bellagio Center, the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, and the MacDowell Colony for the Arts, among others. She is an associate professor of English at Fordham University, where she directs the Poets Out Loud reading series and is editor of the Poets Out Loud Prize from Fordham University Press.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: Originally from the U.S.A., poet and activist Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is now based in central Japan. Her poems and essays have appeared widely in the international small presses. Her first poetry book, Skin Museum, was published in 2006; her second poetry collection, Aquiline, in the northern Fall of 2007 (a third currently untitled book will appear in 2008). She works as an associate professor at a Japanese national university of education, where she teaches courses in American poetry, pedagogy, gender, and intercultural studies. Email is welcome at <email@example.com>.
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