Critics Page In Conversation
STACY SZYMASZEK with Anne Waldman
Anne Waldman (Rail): It seems like you were mightily prepared and inspired to this task of directorship at The Poetry Project, in addition to being a very dedicated and prodigious poet. I want to talk about what you have experienced over the past years of your watch, and the increased challenges that face a non-institutional supported poetry “experiment,” “community,”—“project,” which is le mot juste. I always link “project” to Olson’s projective verse, his manifesto as it were, and the kinetics of the work itself and its way of being in the world in public space, I talk a lot about “infrastructure poetics,” and those called to action in terms of nourishing these kinds of sites and the discourse, and archive as well. A way of being as well, a project of the wild, invoking and practicing the beautiful etiquettes of wild mind. Are we endangered in this kind of architecture?
Stacy Szymaszek: I was prepared in some ways. I had done my reading, thanks to the abundance of material I had access to at Woodland Pattern, and I knew who the poets were in the community to which I would soon belong; I was prepared for having to, at times, operate outside of my comfort level as a boss and a fundraiser; I was prepared for the job to effect my writing in ways I couldn’t predict. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the emotional labor of being the director of The Poetry Project. That’s a particular economy too, but I’ll come back to this. I got the director job in 2007 and the financial crisis came in 2008. In 2007, the Library of Congress purchased the Project’s archive. I always think of these two events together. The former, in part, lead to the process of restoration and digitization being put on hold by the Library of Congress until very recently (no money, no workers). The dream of the archive, of course, is for the public to have access to over 4,000 hours of poetry recorded at the Project. We’re working with them now to have a portion available for our fiftieth Anniversary, the 2016 – 2017 season, and to be able to use some of the archived audio in our programs. The breadth of the readings you were presenting in the ’70s, the connections you made and were asking the public to make…mind-blowing. Every time I go into the Project’s archive my assumptions are challenged, my thinking rearranges. I await the real story.
Shortly after the crash, St. Mark’s Church increased our rent by thirty-three percent. We can’t forget that it’s a landlord/tenant relationship now, and it was acrimonious for some years. One can look at the Project now and see that we’re thriving. We were able to add a new full-time position for the first time in the Project’s history, we created a fellowship program now in its third year, we’ve expanded the workshop program to include master classes and we offer scholarships so they are accessible to everyone, we’re collaborating more deeply with more organizations, and thinking hard about our space on the eve of our fiftieth anniversary, who does and doesn’t feel comfortable at The Poetry Project, what histories need to be recovered—thinking through the legacy to arrive at a more equitable future.
One of my hopes has been that younger poets find some of the things they need, even crave, at the Project, and that the Project feels relevant to their concerns. As you know, it takes a real effort, as we get older, to not let our opinions calcify. I try to surround myself with people I can learn from, my intergenerational team, the organizational projective body, which I think does make us feel more kinetic in public space, or to quote Baraka, to move with “actual life effect.” I want to go back to the economy of emotional labor to address the heart of your question, “Are we endangered in this kind of architecture?” I feel like the Project is one of the wonders of the world. You played a major role in its architecture, and I actually feel it can get knocked around a bit and still come out stable, which is why we are now able to look within to do more work of a reflective nature. One of my favorite pieces of prose is Creeley’s very short “Philip Guston: A Note” which is about care. He says, “I tried to be careful but the form would not have it.” I conceive of my job as making sure the form absorbs instead of resists care. It shouldn’t function as “a nightmare world of forms”. How do we arrive from care’s root words in anxiety and sorrow to “take care”? Jackie Waters has a poem in the current Harper’s “The way to do history / Is not to care about it / Whatever you care for you diminish,” and her voice is very sage as well, so I have voices of poets who care about care percolating as I make decisions.
Rail: What are the social pressures as legacy is studied, scrutinized? How does the complexion of the community measure up now, having as root ancestry the New American poetry and individual practitioners that were there at the beginning? Paul Blackburn, Ishmael Reed, Joel Oppenheimer, a founding committees that include Carol Berge, Rachel Owens, Ted Berrigan, Diane Wakoski, second-gen and further New York School (like Eileen Myles) and the various hybrids with music in the mix—Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, the workshops run by Bernadette Mayer & Alice Notley, the presence of Allen Ginsberg who called St Marks his “Poetry church" the prose workshops etcher etcetra. So much history after fifty years! We do need the scholars and archivists to get busy. It’s said that it takes fifty years to assess a “movement”, and a poetics and I would add, sternly: poetics. And the influence of Umbra, Amiri Baraka. And the strong women who kept legacy going.
Szymaszek: My sense of the Project’s history and lineage, and my sense of curiosity about it, always impacted my programming when I was running the Wednesday Night Reading Series. Now, as you know, Simone White is at the helm. It’s very rewarding to have hosted many of the people you mention: Diane Wakoski hadn’t read at the Project in decades so that night felt very special. She read with Natalie Diaz who was wearing a t-shirt that said “I Read” then an open book “Diane Wakoski.” Paul Blackburn’s son Carlos came to read a few years back, and of course having you, Notley, Myles…be so present and vital is not something I take for granted. I also loved listening to Baraka at the Project and was so happy to have hosted him with Thomas Sayers Ellis a little less than a year before he passed.
It’s an organizational pressure to know its history and to tell it accurately, and to recognize that it isn’t static. Perspectives shift with new information (fifty years to assess a movement). The Project is remarkable in that it’s so various that it can mean different things to so many people. It supports a multitude of narratives. But we also want to use this fifty years of existence as an opportunity to better access the work that we’ve done, and to recover some essential histories, particularly of the involvement of the Umbra poets, and how various their work was, too: Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, David Henderson, Calvin C. Hernton, Ishmael Reed, and Lorenzo Thomas, to name a few. In the first issue of The East Village Other, Reed wrote an account of the racial tensions with the owner of Café le Metro, and the fight involving some Umbra poets that led to this group of poets to look for a new space at St. Mark’s. Several years ago, Miles Champion wrote a great short history of the Project, a placeholder for a major study. I’ve been in touch with Ishmael Reed and have a tentative plan to interview him for our Oral History Project in May.
Simone White’s blog post on white supremacy in the avant-garde, as well as Cathy Park Hong’s essay, and many others since, have been galvanizing. The Project can’t separate itself from the white avant-garde and say, “Oh, that’s not us.” The question is how is it us—how do we change us—how does “us” become more than a white us. A lot goes on here, a lot of work, thousands of hours of poetry being read and a lot of social life. Questioning definitions of poetry community that are racialized and gendered may challenge some people’s notions of what the Project is, but the Project is a poetic space, a thinking space, a constant experiment—the mandate to question is always there. That’s the urgency of now that you and I talk about, the “call to action”. While the Project’s programming is incredibly diverse, our audience isn’t (which was in part the impetus of our “White Room” event ). We’re addressing this issue holistically—
diversity in programming, staff, and board plus doing some work to understand our history locally and as part of a national narrative. And, again this idea of care and infrastructure.
You bring up “strong women.” I’m proud of the fact that the Project has been run by women for more than half of it’s life, thanks to our long tenures! The Project hasn’t been nearly that equitable with regard to staff racial diversity. These issues of access are urgent for us and for other cultural nonprofits as well. Who feels comfortable in our space and who doesn’t? Who feels seen? Can trans and genderqueer people feel safe using the bathrooms here? How do we deal with the church’s physical accessibility limitations and communicate that to the public? Who has the power to make decisions? DCA did a diversity study recently and the results showed that 33.3% of New Yorkers are white while the workforce in the cultural nonprofit sector 74% of senior staff is white. It’s important that the city is concerned about this disparity and will be launching some new initiatives and encouraging the sharing of effective practices.
Rail: Talk about how you balance your worlds. It is quite a juggling act, speaking from my own experience. It is always important to me to continue the serious demanding task of the writing, Whatever else one feels committed to and in this case I always felt the Project to be a spiritual commitment that was and still is so close to my heart and a sense of helping create and sustaining a mutually supportive utopian community. Hard work! When do poets get along best? It was to me as well, my “poetry church.”
Szymaszek: It might make my life easier if I had “worlds” but there isn’t much of a boundary between poet job and Poetry Project job. While employed at the Project I’ve completed a book I started in Milwaukee, and finished three other full-length books, plus a bundle of chapbooks. Working at the Project has been generative for me. As you know, the Project values being poet-run, so it’s part of my job to be a poet. The poet-director lineage is also intense, to say the least, so I think of my work in that context. I also, initially as a coping measure, started using labor as material. The Project is everywhere in it, and you make a lot of appearances, too.
I don’t know what to do with the word “utopian” now. I read Baraka’s “Ed Dorn & the Western World” recently and he talks about the village of their younger days becoming dysfunctional. “The era of good feeling, Ginsberg called it, had passed.” It’s probably like the eternal notion of Duncan’s “before the war, “the era of good feeling” is always passing. But I’m also an optimistic pessimist, and I think poets get along best when we aspire to create new (better) and repeatable experiences with each other, in person. You and I had the experience of a poet not showing up to a group reading and we were concerned enough to go to her place after the reading to make sure she was ok, which she was. And read and talk about the work, maybe even argue about the work. I have my peers and elders, and no problem making a long list of young writers whose work excites me.
Rail: In your remarkable book hart island you have a reference to "Aspiration” ("who’s under who’s wing”), the statue by Solon Borglum which is at the entrance to St. Mark’s Church, and also an Index of lines read or possibly mis-heard during readings at The Poetry Project. Can you talk above this weave of document that’s your work place, and how that comes naturally into this particular work. In GOSSAMURMUR I quote lines from readings at Naropa that now sit an archive waiting for release (preservation as well!) They seemed necessary for this idea of the oral legacy needing reanimation, but also the lines themselves play to the themes/tropes of the poem. I think of the poem I wrote after the devastating fire that destroyed the roof of the Church in 1978 where “The Church speaks center stage.” Are we over-identified with our missions? Who speaks for these markers, sites of so much important history and poetry and love?
Szymaszek: I just listened to a recording of you reading at Naropa in 1978, right after the fire, because I wanted to hear that poem again!
I’m carrying hidden progress
interrupted by sobs
deeply under a flood of light
destroyed a building to do it
and my various parts I now give up
give up to live the lack of any access
no human hand expressing so much energy ever again
give up giving it out nor ever again be as service
to intelligence directing passion
This poem is a love of mine because it’s in the voice of the church and the voice of the infrastructure poet, “to clarify work so dear to me means everything now.” I found Allen’s introduction for you that night to be just as striking. He not only asks for donations for the program, forty grand to cover the deficit, he says he knows, since the box office woman went home, that some people came in without paying for the reading. He encourages them to visit the fundraising table, “the administration is working on a shoestring… please contribute as generously as you can.” Then someone makes an inaudible comment/criticism and Allen says, “this is communism, we are supporting our own scene…everyone wants an ideal society but that requires that everybody work within it.” After you read the poem you talk about needing to raise “about a million dollars” to rebuild the church. People tend to want to consume what they came for and leave, even poetry, and I like the encouragement of organizational sensitivity that you and Allen have. Every live Poetry Project reading represents the various labors of four women in a 300-square-foot room. That room is a creative site for me, as is the parish hall, as are the yards with all of the interred: In, On, Or About the Premises. The documentation in hart island happened quite naturally. My radio was receiving transmissions not from outer space but from underground, and street level. When I wrote that book, I was terrified that the Project was going to have to move so there were times where the elegiac tone is for the church, or is the church talking, as well as the unclaimed dead. “We’ll never forget how hospitable you were”. I’m so moved by the fact that you and I both used the index of lines—yours from the archive, and mine, by my own rule, had to be spoken and written down by me at one of the readings I curated, I did the archiving through my ear and the poem. We share this impulse to, how would you say it, reanimate legacy? I credited the lines in the index but burying them in the text. Everything in that book is about getting buried and unburied.