Editing Lewis Warsh
I had the pleasure of working with Lewis on his last two published books, Out of the Question: Selected Poems 1963-2003 and Piece of Cake (both Station Hill Press), his early prose collaboration with Bernadette Mayer. In each case, I suggested publishing the books, after consulting with my frequent collaborator, SHP director Sam Truitt. The initial conversations with Lewis about the books took place at the annual July 4th poetic gatherings at Bernadette’s and Phil Good’s house in East Nassau, N.Y. All of our subsequent work was done over many noon meetings at the now-shuttered Le Pain Quotidien on 7th Ave. and 17th St. in Manhattan, around the corner from Lewis’s apartment and on my way to work at The Wall Street Journal in Midtown.
One of the most important decisions about any selected poems is the time period. We wanted Lewis to make a selection from his whole life as a poet, from 1963 to the present, but he was afraid that would burn sales of his two most recent poetry books—and thus their publishers, Granary Books and Ugly Duckling Presse. He wanted to end in the late 1990s. I disagreed and eventually persuaded him to go until 2003 with “The Flea Market in Kiel,” arguing it could stand in for his later poetry and it further developed the theme of his “writing long poems divided into numbered sections.” If limiting the time period was a mistake, it’s instructive to look at Lewis’s reason: He cared about his publishers, and not just because he was a longtime publisher himself with Angel Hair and United Artists. Lewis cared about people. He stands out among poets I’ve known when it comes to caring about people.
On other important decisions, Lewis was more amenable to suggestion. I thought he should include the uncharacteristic long poem “The Corset,” which has given pleasure to decades of readers and shows a feminist side of him. He was fine with that. He did break his rule about protecting his last two books by including “The Flea Market in Kiel.” In his initial introduction, I was worried he was writing too much about his beginnings as a poet, and also giving short shrift to his shorter poems. Shouldn’t he add a paragraph about that? A day or two later, ever the disciplined writer, Lewis sent me this paragraph:
“The shorter poems sometimes sound like different people wrote them, and in a way that’s true, and a good thing, though I recognize the writer in his various disguises no matter how many years have gone by. One criteria for including poems in the book was how closely I could still identify with the writer and what was going on in my life at the time. The most sudden shift, I think, happens in Dreaming As One, where the poems go from being dense and abstract to personal and direct almost without skipping a beat.”
Lewis didn’t just carry out an assignment, he added something essential to the book. It helps that he was a brilliant prose writer, as readers of his novels, memoirs, and collected stories know.
As for working with Lewis on Piece of Cake, that ended up being, well, a piece of cake. I knew of the existence of the 1976 prose collaboration for a number of years, from conversations with Bernadette when Sam and I edited her Studying Hunger Journals and her collected early books, Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words (both Station Hill Press). I knew Lewis had the only copy of Piece of Cake, which had to be one of the first male-female collaborations in the history of American poetry. “How about publishing that book?” I asked him once or twice, standing near the grill at Bernadette’s on Tsatsawassa Lake Road. Lewis wasn’t sure. He didn’t know how good it was, how much revision it might need. Some things in recent literary histories of the second generation New York School really bothered him. He was worried about fueling what he considered gossip in any way.
After we finished his selected poems, Sam and I hoped to work with Lewis some more. Like Bernadette herself, he was a very easy person to work with—responsive, productive. I wrote him about Piece of Cake in the first days of 2018. This time, he said he could edit his part of the book during the summer. But then, a month later in early February, he wrote, “I can start editing it a bit now.” Lewis was that rare person who delivered ahead of schedule. In the same email, he said that “my main editing goal is getting rid of the old gossip and anything that might spark animosities.” There was less of that than he feared, if I’m not mistaken, and he spent most of his time tightening the 40-year-old prose in his chapters. Altogether, he very much took the lead in seeing Piece of Cake into print, including most of the dealings with Bernadette about her half of the text. It turned out he saved this unique book from oblivion in the nick of time.
MICHAEL RUBY is the author of seven full-length poetry collections: At an Intersection (Alef), Window on the City (BlazeVOX [books]), The Edge of the Underworld (BlazeVOX [books]), Compulsive Words (BlazeVOX [books]), American Songbook (Ugly Duckling Presse), The Mouth of the Bay (BlazeVOX [books]) and The Star-Spangled Banner (Station Hill Press). His trilogy in prose and poetry, Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices (Station Hill Press), includes ebooks Fleeting Memories (Ugly Duckling Presse) and Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep (Argotist Online). He is also the author of ebooks Close Your Eyes (Argotist Online) and Titles & First Lines (Mudlark), and five Dusie Kollektiv chapbooks. He co-edited Bernadette Mayer’s early books, Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words (Station Hill Press), and Mayer’s and Lewis Warsh’s collaboration Piece of Cake (Station Hill Press). He lives in Brooklyn and works as an editor at The Wall Street Journal.