by Matvei Yankelevich
Poets/publishers Matvei Yankelevich and Kyle Schlesinger got together by email recently to talk about Cuneiform Press, the recently published A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, and Publishers (Ugly Duckling Presse) and Kyle’s recent book of poetry, A New Kind of Country (Chax Press).
Kyle Schlesinger: One of the unrealized dream books that I’ve wanted to do is with Rhys Chatham. I was friends with Tony Conrad in Buffalo and Rhys was visiting Tony, who introduced us. He has all of these photographs, amazing photographs of the music programming that he did at The Kitchen. He was writing one paragraph captions for each, and I told him, “this could be an amazing book.” And he’s like, “oh yeah, but I’m not really confident about my writing. Maybe you’d edit it for me?” We have been talking about it for years, but…
Boog City: I didn’t know you and Tony were pals.
I miss that guy. A real sweetie. One really funny memory I have of him: We were at a barbecue together and someone put out these old folding chairs made out of cloth. I sat down next to Tony with my food and the cloth seat ripped and I fell on the ground, potato salad and a hot dog on my face and mustard on my shirt. It was a mess! Tony started laughing, and he laughed so hard that his chair ripped too, and he fell down and wound up with hamburger and egg salad on his face. And, you know, we were both just laying on the ground, covered in picnic, laughing.
You met him at Buffalo when you were a grad student? What was the reason you met? It’s curious because it was a slightly different world, but he was sort of involved with the Poetics Program, right?
He was. He would just come over to the house or, you know, play with the kid and stuff. He had a very childlike disposition, curious about the world. Like it didn’t really change with age. He was sort of like a six-year-old who just wanted to understand, like, how does sound work? Or, where does color come from? Do birds dream? He had this innocent way of looking at the world and never took the simplest questions for granted. I liked that about him.
I’ve always imagined that you started Cuneiform at Buffalo, but did it start before that? I know you found letterpress before Buffalo. Could you talk us through your first printing experiences?
I had a teacher at Goddard College named Will Hamlin. Do you have that Mary Emma Harris book, The Arts at Black Mountain College? A bunch of his photographs are in there. Will went to Black Mountain and everyone there had a job to do, like whether you were paying full tuition or on a scholarship, and Will was the printer. He showed me some of the things that he’d printed. It was before Olson, when John Andrew Rice was the Rector. And he was saying it was kind of a pain to be the printer because no one could set deadlines on when things were going to happen. So there would be a play and he’d set part of the type for the playbill, and he’d have to wait to put the date on it.
So anyway, I met Will in the nineties, and I thought a printer was a gray box that you put on your desk. And he was like, no, no, no, no, this is way before computers and all of that. I asked how he printed stuff in the forties, and he told me about letterpress. It was so beautiful to see the ephemera he had. I became so curious I bought a press from the classifieds because I wanted to see how it worked. Some friends and I borrowed a pickup truck and drove to Waitsfield, which isn’t very far from Plainfield [Goddard College], and moved a clamshell press.
You mean like a C&P [Chandler & Price]? Not a tabletop press?
Yeah. It was probably an 8″ x 12″. And it was not a C&P, but a George Prouty & Sons printing press. It came with one cabinet of type and a few other miscellaneous letterpress things. The couple who sold it said “we had this idea that we wanted to do letterpress, and then we had kids and yada, yada, yada, and it’s sitting in the barn, so two-hundred bucks and it’s yours.” You know, that kind of thing.
That’s funny, we also paid two-hundred dollars for our first press (a Kelsey tabletop) and a cabinet of type. Was there someone around that could teach you how to print or did you just set your first chase and like lock it in?
I’m a goofball. And this was before YouTube was really going, so I learned from books and trial and error. I remember borrowing a spaghetti strainer from the cafeteria and throwing all the inky type into it, then pouring mineral spirits all over the type. I eventually figured out that there’s a better way to clean your type.
You mean you would disassemble the type and then put it in the strainer?
Exactly. I just threw all the type in the spaghetti strainer after we were done printing and doused mineral spirits all over the top and made a big mess.
Wow. That’s awesome. I thought I was the only one that would do something like that. So who taught you how to print? It’s true there wasn’t much on the internet, like all these video tutorials or communities you have now. So, you got this press—what was the first thing you printed on it, or the first thing that you really wanted to print on it?
It was an exercise. I made a bookmark with a quote from Julia Kristeva that said, “Science cannot account for the subjectivity of the maternal body.”
Amazing. So how long from getting the press to thinking of yourself as a publisher? Walk me through the steps from the bookmark to the first Cuneiform book.
Probably like two or three years. After I left Vermont, I went back to Providence where I grew up and started teaching high school English. I didn’t really know anything about contemporary poetry. I think The New American Poetry was kind of as far as I got in Vermont, and then I found out about Burning Deck Press in Providence. I guess I knew a little bit about Language poetry—I had met Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews at that time. They came to Vermont, to Goddard. And it was really weird, hiking with Bruce Andrews—he’s not a pastoral poet, you know. The first poetry reading I gave was with Bruce.
Somehow I had heard that Robert Creeley was doing a residency in Vermont, and I invited Creeley to come to the college to do a reading. So we got to hang out all day. And he told me a lot of great stories about Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan, and Olson. We just walked around in the woods. I showed him the letterpress and he was like, “dude, that’s stupid. When I did the Divers Press and the Black Mountain Review, we had to do letterpress, but you should find out what email is, because email is much better than letterpress.” He was totally pro-technology, not really interested in the antiquated stuff. Bob was enthusiastic about the Poetics List and the EPC [Electronic Poetry Center], which must have been new at the time.
So you were programming the poetry readings at Goddard or working with the English department to bring these people?
No … I’m a fool. I just knew that Creeley was in Vermont and somehow I got his telephone number and he called me back and said, “I haven’t been to Goddard since 1963. I’ll come. What’s the honorarium?” And I said, “I gotta get back to you on that,” because I didn’t know what an honorarium was. So I looked it up in the dictionary and then I was like, “oh, he wants money!” So I went around and asked my friends, “you guys have any money for a poet?” And we got about $50 together. And I called Bob back and I said the honorarium is $50. And he said, “oh cool. That’s exactly what I got in 1963. Come pick me up!”
Did Creeley read at somebody’s house or was it like a part of the college?
He read in a barn on campus. And then Creeley must have told Charles, “Hey, I know this great reading series—you get fifty bucks a hamburger and you read in a barn. Best ticket in town.” So anyway, later in Providence, this is 1999 or so, I found The Tablets by Armand Schwerner, the Cummington Press edition—a beautiful letterpress book. That got me interested in ancient writing systems and hence Cuneiform, a language incised in a clay tablet—the tactile feeling of writing I associate with the letterpress. Y2K was coming up and everything was going digital, so it seemed to me that going back in history and back to tactility was the thing to do.
So, you were reading Schwerner, and Burning Deck books, and getting familiar with contemporary poetry, and you were into letterpress materials and books, but what made you want to publish poetry? And what did you think you would publish when you started?
Oh, I think we probably have pretty parallel paths here. You know, meeting younger writers who had never published a book before and being like, “oh, I really liked your poem, and I know how to make books—or I want to learn how to make books—so why don’t we try making a chapbook together?” Yeah, pretty cliché. The first folks would have been Patrick Durgin, Gregg Biglieri, Luisa Giugliano, and Nick Piombino. This was in Buffalo. I bought some Bembo type and printed a little chapbook by Luisa, a friend from college. We thought ISBN numbers were too expensive, so we put an ISSN [for periodicals] on it, so that almost doesn’t count.
So you weren’t back in Providence very long and teaching high school before you started the Buffalo program …
I only lasted a year. Bob [Creeley], asked, “Hey, how’s high school going?” And I was like, “I love teaching, but I suck at discipline.” I see the kids running in the hall and I’m like, “oh, that looks fun!” The other teachers said, “no, you’re supposed to give them detention slips.” But I couldn’t do that. They’re just kids having fun, getting exercise. So then Bob came up with an idea. He said, “if you like teaching, but you don’t like discipline, maybe you’d be better at teaching college? Come to Buffalo and do the degree and then you can get a job teaching college instead.” I thought that was a great idea … It’s all kind of like serendipity, flukes, and happy accidents, you know, like in the book we just published…
Speaking of that book [A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers (Cuneiform Press and Ugly Duckling Presse], here I am interviewing the interviewer. How did you interview all those people? You started those interviews kind of soon after founding Cuneiform, within five years or so, in the early aughts, right?
Coming back to Tony [Conrad], the first one was actually videotaped. Tony and I were talking about how it would be great to just set up some cameras in the print shop and say, “Keith and Rosmarie, can you show us how to set type? How do you do this?” And I would just get out of the room and do a cinéma vérité thing. I knew that these people would not be around forever. So I just wanted to observe the technique and put it on PBS or something. For technical reasons that didn’t really pan out. I think that that actually would have been a more interesting project than what we did.
It’d be amazing—all the different, weird things that people pick up because they don’t have formal training.
Right. Here’s Kyle showing you how to put type in the spaghetti strainer!
There’s a lot of stuff in A Poetics of the Press I didn’t know before. Like much of Annabel Lee’s Vehicle Editions history. Such varied histories and trajectories overlapping. How do you feel about finishing this book?
Oh, so happy. I really did not have any wind in my sails to finish it until you all [UDP] got involved. And then I was like, “oh yeah, like, this is boring to me because I’ve been thinking about it for 20 years.” But working with Sarah [Lawson] at UDP and getting all these new questions and new ideas, I thought, “maybe it’s not irrelevant for people who don’t know about this stuff already.”
A Poetics of the Press is the first book that I’m aware of that takes up the subject of poets who are also printers, and that’s unique in the world of literature on small press culture, typography, graphic design, etc. and yet I should be clear that within this niche, there are many poet-printers that I did not interview, and I didn’t attempt to interview “the best in the field,” but rather to offer an eclectic range of stories. It was important to me that the interviewees are of multiple generations, and from different continents. Also it sort of collapses high culture and low, you know—university-educated people who studied book arts like Inge Bruggeman and Aaron Cohick, and people who taught themselves, like Tom Raworth and Scott Pierce. Some of the presses make very expensive books, and others are very affordable, so showing a spectrum of activity was more important to me than championing any particular aesthetic or practice.
Speaking of high and low culture, if I could go back in time, I would have enjoyed interviewing some self-taught printers who made very inexpensive books of poetry that have now become rare collectors’ items. I’m thinking of Piero Heliczer’s Dead Language, Wallace Berman’s Semina, and Holbrook Teeter and Michael Myers’ Zephyrus Image, all incredible printers to my mind. They are all DIY printers that made books that are now worth thousands of dollars and very hard to find. Of course, you can go to the Codex book fair in Berkeley where they have new books produced by expert printers that are thousands and thousands of dollars. I just kind of like to put all of these books on the same table and talk about what makes them interesting and different, rather than what makes one better than another.
You did these interviews over a period of maybe 15 years. When you finished one, did you say to yourself, “ok, who’s next”?
I just got lucky, you know, like Charles Alexander is coming to New York from Tucson. Maybe I could interview him while he’s here? In Alan Loney’s case, our correspondence sort of evolved into an interview, because, you know, everyone wants to hear a good story.
Gossip seems to be one of the reasons you wanted to do these interviews?
Oh yeah. Just to hear all the stories. It’s basically an oral history project about obsolete technology and all the amazing anecdotes that come along with it. I mean, writing is inherently social, even though it’s often perceived as a very solitary thing. My tante Erna would say, “Don’t become a writer, you’ll wind up old and alone like your uncle Tom.” And getting older and all these friends dying, you know … like the other day I wanted to call Bill Berkson and ask him to recommend some books about de Kooning. But I can still pick up Bill’s books and read with him, you know what I mean?
So what were those early Cuneiform years like? Did you move your Prouty & Sons to Buffalo?
I had left the Prouty & Sons press in Vermont. I used the presses at Rhode Island School of Design for a year. They had continuing education classes that were inexpensive, and you got a key to the print shop. I took a class on how to make pop-up books. The setup there was really interesting because the print shop at RISD faces the river, toward downtown, and behind the print shop there’s a kind of aquarium-like computer room with more windows. So I’d be in the print shop setting type, and one day this guy walked in and he was like, “Hey, what are you doing?” And I said, “You know, I’m setting type.” I was printing a Zukofsky broadside or something. And he said, “Oh, that’s cool. I’m taking a digital typography workshop.” And I just thought it was hilarious that this guy’s studying digital typography while looking at letterpress stuff, you know, behind a computer, and not seeing a connection between the two. At that point I was still just goofing around, finding fonts that I liked and trying to make a little something or other, just kind of dicking around after work, finding things in books and making broadsides, bookmarks, or letterhead.
What did you do with the stuff you were printing? Did you bring the Zukofsky broadside over to the Waldrops’ house and stick it under the door, or …? Did you meet the Waldrops that year when you were teaching high school or did you know them already?
Yeah, I met them that year. It was a little bit of a town and gown thing. They had poetry readings at Brown, which I could sort of sneak into as someone who had no affiliation. I remember hearing Clark Coolidge read there for the first time that year and being like, “oh man, I could listen to this guy all night long.”
So then, so you got to Buffalo and there’s all these poets and what then? Did you jump into the print shop at Buffalo right away?
That was also just dumb luck. I was contemplating going back to Vermont and getting my press and then I started asking around, “is there a letterpress in Buffalo?” One of the art teachers said, “I’m not really sure, but there is this big gray machine with lots of letters around it and it’s kind of a mess.” It was just sitting there, no one had used it in a long time, a Vandercook 4. There had been someone who used the press to teach typography, and eventually they went digital. So I basically had a private studio and it didn’t cost anything, free heat and electricity, and I could just go there anytime.
From what I have heard about Buffalo there was always someone like Michael Cross or the people doing P-Queue who were working in the print shop. So I just assumed there was this long living tradition, but it kind of restarted with you.
There was university money to make periodicals and chapbooks and stuff, but as far as I know, no one was using the letterpress until I got there. I made books with Michael Cross, Kristen Gallagher, Jonathan Skinner, Sarah Campbell, Partick Durgin, and others. People were really interested in learning and I was by no means an expert, but for five or six years I did chapbooks for all different kinds of presses that were in Buffalo at the time, and lots of posters and broadsides for different people coming to town to do readings and other events.
I probably saw your Kenning covers—I had no idea.
That whole return to analog is so prevalent among people younger than ourselves, you know, they’re much more like their grandparents than their parents, Brooklyn being like the epicenter of the return to analog. Now a well-educated young person is like, “I want to move to Brooklyn and make pickles.” And it’s like, “you have a college education, you grew up in a nice suburb. Why in the world would you move to the city and make pickles? Like that’s what your grandfather did.” And they’re like, “I’m going to ride a bicycle and make pickles and, you know, buy a letterpress.” They’re tired of PowerPoint presentations. Kids don’t want mom and dad giving them the iPad every time they get bored.
And now all the letterpresses are fixed up and people can use them. In a way you did that for Buffalo and many people did that around that time. You and others kind of brought back this stuff, hauled it out of the basements and the barns and into places where people could use these machines. So now there’s maybe a different feeling about letterpress, it’s kind of institutional in some way, not quite in the basement. You can take classes at the Center for the Book in Minneapolis or Center for Book Arts in New York or The Arm in Brooklyn. How does that affect the appeal? It must be different from what it was like for Wallace Berman to set up Semina or for Lyn Hejinian (who’s interviewed in the book) to get some type and a press into her kitchen, when also this stuff wasn’t so expensive, after offset became the norm.
And that’s kind of like the sweet spot in terms of the chronology. Pretty much everyone in the book learned letterpress after it was not commercially viable, not in demand anymore. The youngest people in the book got started at the tail end of that, and now we have the internet and letterpresses go for ten or twenty thousand, you know? Now people are on eBay in bidding wars for stuff that used to be garbage and they have all the information—if you’re having a problem you can go to the Vandercook website discussion board and the owner’s manuals are downloadable. I just get bored when people are like, “do you like new media or old media? Do you like eBooks or books?” They’re complimentary. They’re not in opposition to one another, they just make each other better.
I don’t know about you, but I get a poetry periodical like once a month now, but in the ’90s I would get one almost every day. Everyone had a magazine, and I kind of miss that—just open one up, “Who is this poet? Who is that poet?” All the new stuff. I don’t really read poetry on the internet. I’m sure that there’s like lots of cool online journals publishing amazing emerging writers, but the absence of printed poetry periodicals makes it harder for me to find [those poets].
Can you say more about why? I mean, I feel similarly, I don’t typically go and look, but now and then someone will alert me to something, and yes, there is some good stuff. But what do you think is the reason you don’t pursue that?
One of the wonderful things about the computer is how much poetry is available in audio and video formats. In the world before the computer, a tape recording or vinyl recording was a rare treat. PennSound is an amazing resource, for example. But when it comes to reading poetry on a screen, it lacks sensuality. The hair on my arms won’t stand up. I never get chills reading poetry on the computer. It feels very flat and one dimensional. In a book, I really feel it. I remember more, and I see more details. Like, you know John Prine, I was listening to that Tree of Forgiveness album over and over on Spotify and there’s that song, “Summer’s End” which I thought was great. But then when I got the record, I just started balling. It reminded me of my summers with my son when we’ve got only a few more days left together. That whole routine. I didn’t hear the real poetry in Prine’s song until I put it on the turntable, it just became so vivid and big. I feel the same way about poetry.
As you were saying that I was thinking about reading your new book, A New Kind of Country (Chax Press). I was at this picnic table upstate yesterday, with the sun and the birds around, and I was noticing all these tiny details in your poems—these slight defamiliarizations. On the internet, I might’ve thought they were typos, but in the book it’s clearly intentional. Like, did you mean “Ambien” the pill or did you mean “ambient”? You play with these little things, “intentional typos” that make a word you wouldn’t expect in that sentence. If I were reading the same poems online, I would have missed those things or thought they were accidents.
Exactly. There’s also something about the trust factor. You remember when people started putting out online journals with thousands of poems in them? The idea was that you could scroll for the rest of your life and never reach an end—and unlike print, it doesn’t cost anything. Or the print-on-demand model, not really curated, the wild west of digital poetry … If I’m going to take the time to read poems, I want to know that they’re somehow curated, or that there’s some idea behind the selection. If I get a book from you in the mail, I’m going to read it because I know that a lot of thought went into it. A lot of care went into it, and I don’t have the same trust of online periodicals, unless someone I trust recommends it.
Yeah. These are perhaps different conceptions of the unit of the poem that come with the online publication as opposed to print … What you want from the poem, like a particular attention to detail.
Right, did the editor even read this poem? Did they check the spelling?
In your book, if I were editing it, I would have a hundred questions, like do you mean this word? Is that intentional?
An online journal with thousands of poets, no, the editor is not going to ask those detailed questions.
And with letterpress particularly, but even for offset, the fact is you’re making all these copies, they’re all going to be identical, you can’t change them after they’re printed, where online, an editor can always correct typos, etc. later.
Back to your new book, I was also struck by the prose poems, and this technique recurs, where suddenly we’re in a narrative, and I don’t know at first that it’s a dream narrative or what. And there’s this really amazing prose piece about your poetics. It’s called “Debut.” It starts with “My poetics is the hardest part.” I just love this piece. It feels like a mashup of the awkward things people would say when pressured to talk about their poetics.
It is! I went on the internet and found dumb things people said about their poetics, and then I wove them together with my own lines, and some lyrics from Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis”.
But it also serves an important function in A New Kind of Country. It’s similar to the poems in that it constantly veers you away from an answer. I’m looking for something about you, an answer to the question of poetics, and you keep moving and shifting and avoiding. So “Debut” really foregrounds something about your desire for the poems to not be pinned to some particular school or idea. Yet, they’re part of a tradition, like there’s Creeley in some of the shorter-line pieces, there’s a lot of Ted Greenwald, if I’m not mistaken, in some of the forms where phrases repeat in permutations. At times it reminded me of Harryette Mullen, especially in the first half of the book, because of the way you tweak things that come from overheard speech or from idioms, just everyday speech that you recombine in interesting ways, that reminded me of Muse & Drudge, with its quatrains of collating language and moving readymade idioms into odd spaces. So, even though you clearly didn’t want to talk about your poetics in a straightforward way, and probably would never want to, but I wanted to ask you to talk about some of the influences that you feel came to the fore in this new book. Was it partly that Ted [Greenwald] passed away recently?
And Bill Berkson, and Larry Fagin, and Tom Raworth. They all died within a year or so. I published four books of Ted’s and some Bill Berkson. And I typeset Ted for other publishers. Ted liked to make his own forms, he’d come up with new patterns for himself, and he encouraged me to try that too, so I wasn’t following one of his forms in particular. A Poetics of the Press is dedicated to Tom Raworth, and Cuneiform just published Peaches & Gravy, Larry Fagin’s selected poems.
How did that relationship with Ted get started?
Charles [Bernstein] had a bunch of copies of Common Sense, sort of like Ted’s selected poems from the mid-seventies. And back in the analog world, I had this friend who I would trade poetry tapes with. We would make each other mixtapes, reading poems we liked, and send them to each other in the mail. And I was reading Common Sense and I was like, wow, this guy’s good. And I sent Ted a letter, actually, and it took him maybe two years to get back to me. His health was already in decline. Eventually he did write back and he was like, “yeah, let’s get together, you know, maybe we could make a book together. I made a collaboration with the artist Hal Saulson. Next time you’re in the city, give me a call.”
So sometime later I go to New York, to this guy Hal’s house across the street from the Knitting Factory [when it was in TriBeCa]. He does the traditional thing where he throws the sock out the window with the key in it and I do the long walk to the fifth floor. And Hal is very, very busy; he’s on the phone, talking about money, selling his art, you know, like “$50,000? I want a hundred… blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And the phone’s ringing off the hook and I’m like, “geez, this guy is the man.” And so anyway, he shows me his art, and then we take a taxi to a restaurant. Ted pays for the taxi. We go inside and Ted’s sitting at the table of a very nice restaurant. We have lunch and we drink some wine and talk. And then Ted takes this wad of bills out of his pocket and throws like five-hundred bucks on the table for lunch. I was like, “wow, alright, these guys are serious.” And then we make the book, Two Wrongs, and only later I find out that it was all a performance to sell me on their collaboration. The next time I was in New York, Ted and I had a coffee, and I paid the bill. Ted always left extravagant tips.
They didn’t think you’d bite if they didn’t play like high rollers? So that relationship started with a con?
Yeah. Everything meaningful begins with deception! I mean, I’m just some schmuck with a small press, they didn’t have to wine and dine me to pique my interest in the work, but they had this idea that they needed to put on a little show to make the book happen. That’s real New York show business, or just classic street smarts. It never occurred to me to do that, but if you grow up in Queens, I guess you hustle. I think that at the time we met, Ted hadn’t put out a book in like 10 or 15 years. Between his health and not using a computer he kind of got lost in the new millennium. We set up a website for him and got recordings on PennSound. I published a few of his books, and he got an email account. Then he just gave me manuscripts to type for him. And then I would send them out to other presses. I was a little bit like his late-life secretary in a way, and that was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done with my life.
And you guys collaborated on some stuff too, there’s that poem at the end of A New Kind of Country, “None of Us.”
The last time I saw him he said, “hey, maybe we should collaborate on something?” So we cooked up this idea to do like 500 postcards back and forth with lines of three or something on each postcard and then a picture on the other side. But he died pretty quick after that. So we did only 10 back and forth or something like that, and that became the little artists’ book we made, and this poem.
There are also moments that reminded me a lot of Lewis Warsh, like the “Hello” poem, and this part about the airplane in “Planks”: “So I press my camera against the glass/ And take a picture of an airplane/ Inside there’s someone I love/ But the picture just looks like/ Any old airplane.” It reminds me of some of the ways Lewis’ poems have an emotional space that gets flattened out or deflated, and yet becomes all the more poignant. (I know you worked closely with Lewis on the special Mimeo Mimeo issue.) And also a kind of pointing that also happens in his poems—lines that begin with “there”: there’s this and there’s that. I love that part where you say, “What else may be the best question ever.” I remember Lewis saying “what else?” asking you to keep going.
I think that came from Inherent Vice, the Thomas Pynchon novel. The conversation seems over, and then the detective always says, “what else?” That question invites a confession, big or small, the plot thickens, like they say.
And there’s that funny misspelling one could miss in a different format, but Duncan Donuts (as in Robert Duncan). The book has a lot of things about time and the past—you write: “it’s the better half of the looking glass that has me looking back,” and “whose heels follow who’s?” So I hear these voices from the past, and also the names of poets. I think all of the poets you just mentioned who passed away are in this book: sometimes in the dedications, or referred to in the poems, or maybe even alluded to in some of the lines. So I was wondering how Lewis and the others figured in your own writing.
One of the things I really like about Lewis is that he had a very cool way of being romantic in his writing. Like it’s hard to be sincerely romantic in a poem without gussying it up or falling into clichés. But Lewis could write about his body and other people’s bodies in a way that was flirtatious and sensual, but never sexist, which is unusual for a poet, a heterosexual male poet of that generation. Rereading it in 2020, I can’t find fault with it. While with other poets of his generation it’s like, maybe that worked in the seventies, but it doesn’t hold water today. But Lewis had this way of being very cool and romantic and sensual without being cliché or derogatory.
I think I hear that or see that in these poems too, in your book. There’s also the stuff about being sincere that comes up a couple of times. The idea of sincerity pairs with the recurring idea of uncertainty in the book in an interesting way. Any thoughts come to mind about those themes?
It might be partly about detoxing from Language poetry and postmodernism. I don’t think Language poets have any idea how to write about love or sex or the body. About what experience is like outside of Derrida, or outside of reading, you know, like it’s all happening in the head, in the library—it’s hyper-referential. So, coming out of that phase in my reading, having sort of gone through the grinder of Language poetry and postmodern theory, I felt the most experimental thing I could do was write narrative and be sincere. And to write about feelings, about relationships, but not in an M.F.A. program kind of way. Addressing uncertainty, sincerity, narrative, experience, relationships: that actually feels very experimental to me.
But the piece about poetics is definitely a postmodern type of piece. But it’s also not like you’re rejecting it, it’s like you’re coming out of it …
Like detoxing from Language poetry.
There’s so much to say about it. I like that poem where you keep changing the words around: “Feelings have bodies, Feelings have ideas,” etc. etc. It’s set up as a highly constrained piece, a kind of constraint poem in a lot of ways, but at the same time, it walks you through all of those possible combinations. Like thoughts have emotions, thoughts have bodies, and so on. So it gets into this sort of space of the idea, the emotion, the feeling the body has this meat and materiality in this poem. You can’t extract the reading experience from the body experience. But I was also thinking about the way relationships are sort of obliquely pointed to in these poems, like, “And I know you’re coming/ Over on your bike” I think that’s also the same one that has the line, “I’m a sincere person/ (really mean that)” I picked up on this line, “Before uncertainty/ There was practice.” I love that line. And then there is “Uncertainty is the ultimate spoiler.” So I’m curious why that word came up three or four times in the book. Like in this great quatrain in “Asleep in the Attic”:
Air refracting what stays or appears to
Toss a pebble in water of meaning
And watch concentric circles form
Smooth as eyelids sure as uncertainty
Perhaps these are places where you are referencing coming out of thinking and reading. I mean, there is something like the trace with the pebble and the concentric circles of meaning that keep growing. The eyelid suggests a closed eye, and the only thing you can be sure of is that you’re uncertain. There’s a certainty of the body, but an uncertainty or an openness to uncertainty in the poems. This is reflected in the ways that little spelling variations or tweaked idioms come up, making room for that kind of uncertainty—which thing is Kyle meaning to say? And Kyle isn’t always certain. I like that. And that’s sort of where the poetics, or the evasion of the poetics statement, comes into play. Like, I’m not going to actually tell you anything about my poetics or why I do things this way or that.
Yeah, I don’t want to hit the nail on the head or say it too square, you know? But the uncertainty thing is interesting … Maybe you’ve experienced this in your books. Like, you don’t realize that there is a recurring theme until it’s all put together. The connection between uncertainty and sincerity—I had never noticed that. You flagged the word, but I didn’t think of it as a motif or recurring theme until now.
A kind of unconscious motif, and it’s also something I’m interested in. And then you have these dream poems, which have people from the past, but also unfamiliar people and these bizarre situations. I’m just curious why it was important to you to bring these into the book?
Before I got to Texas, I don’t think I had ever lived anywhere for more than a year. I was constantly moving. And also having a kid at a very early age, I was just always going, you know, really busy. Getting to Texas and working just one job and living in the same house for a while, I found that my memories of the past became much more vivid, like randomly remembering the names of kids I went to kindergarten with—they would just come up in a dream. And I’m like, “why am I thinking about Sarah Hopper?” If you asked me, “who is Sarah Hopper?” I would have had no idea in my waking life, but somehow in the dream, I was able to get into these memories that were pushed way back in the broom closet. So there was something about being settled in a place that does not feel like home that brought me back closer to home, if that makes sense. So sometimes I appropriate parts of a dream into a poem, but writing an entire dream poem seems kind of silly to me, but there might be just like a little piece of it. That’s interesting, you know, just another text or experience to incorporate.
And what about “Lavender Country,” the Tompkins Square Park piece? You’re on the Lower East Side and all these people are in your dream (I assumed it’s in a dream), a group of older poets, Lewis and Bill [Berkson], Lyn [Hejinian], Joanne [Kyger], Alice [Notley] …
That was part of the dream too.
I love how it ends: “He is gone now, taking his body with him, when all the time, I thought it was the beauty of his mind I loved.”
That’s from one of Ted’s poems. I didn’t use quotation marks.
That’s amazing. Cause it comes right after you beat up the guy on the park bench who tells you to fuck off. So it seems like it’s about the guy who you beat up.
To me, I’m beating up Ted in that poem because I’m mad at him for dying, so it made sense to close the poem with that line from Ted. I wrote “Lavender Country” the day he told me he was going into hospice. Lavender Country is also the first openly gay country music band in history. I went to one of their concerts the day I wrote the poem.
It’s really intense. It’s beautiful and it’s hard.
Nice to talk so much about Ted, thank you for asking these questions and letting me float down memory lane. I miss him a lot.
Do you wanna say anything else about the book about A New Kind of Country? Where does the title come from?
You know, I was sure that there used to be a radio show called “A New Kind of Country” (for country music) and I can’t find a trace of it anywhere. It’s a phrase that stuck with me from the age of three or four listening to the radio in my parents’ car. But also, when this book was written, a lot of people were losing hope in America and really fed up with the state of affairs, so the title has a political dimension. On a personal level, it’s an allusion to getting settled in Austin and going out to listen to country music at the honky-tonks. Austin is known for introducing a new kind of country music, the cosmic cowboy, the psychedelic outlaw, that’s really different from the Nashville sound.
Do you want to say anything else about the book? “What else?”
Should I drop the bomb now? [Laughter]
Thanks for your time Kyle! I just want to say, I’ve always been amazed how you maintain your cool, your calm, collected, psychedelic self through all of the stuff you do, and how many great books you put out on Cuneiform, working mostly on your own, right?
I can never get organized enough to think a year ahead of myself. Like, you do subscriptions, but all I can do is standing orders because I have no idea what the budget for 2022 might be, or who’s going to be ready to make a book. Maybe I’ll just want to spend the year gardening. Circling back to Black Mountain, there’s no production schedule, the book is a form of art, done when it is the best it can be. I might just get tired of the publishing for a year and want to do something else. So it totally varies. There’s no one telling you, you have to do it. I always think of it more as an art than a business, you know? Like I feel like that’s a helpful way to explain what I do to people. Like how many paintings do you make in a year? I guess commercially successful artists might have that, but my mom paints and she doesn’t have to churn them out on a deadline. And if Lisa Rogal [la belle indifference (Cuneiform)] says I need like a year to think about this manuscript. Well, take a year. Don’t send me something that doesn’t feel right just because of some deadline, you know. Tell me when it feels ready. I’ll be here.
KYLE SCHLESINGER is a poet, printer, and professor. His publications include A New Kind of Country (Chax Press); Color & Light (Dusie); None of Us, a collaboration with Ted Greenwald (Kin Press); Vast Acid West, a collaboration with Crane Giamo (Cuneiform Press/ Pocalypstic Editions), and A Poetics of the Press (Ugly Duckling Presse). He resides in Austin, Texas, where he serves as the proprietor of Cuneiform Press. Kyle Harvey photo.
MATVEI YANKELEVICH is a poet and translator and one of the founding editors of Ugly Duckling Presse. His poetry books include Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square) and Alpha Donut (United Artists Books). His translations from Russian include Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook/Abrams), and (with Eugene Ostashevsy) Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets), which received a National Translation Award. He teaches translation and book arts at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.