Months ago, I stumbled upon “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” In each episode, Jerry Seinfeld drives a notable car to pick up a comedian. He drives them to a coffee shop, and they drink their coffee and talk. In the episode with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld drives a 1995 Volvo station wagon with a racing engine installed by Paul Newman. A Volvo with a racing engine? Even Paul Newman has a sense of humor.
Since this blog post is not sponsored by a luxury car maker, I was not able to procure a Lamborghini—or even a Vespa for that matter—for my coffee date with poet Kim Roberts. To meet her, I took Metro, which has provided me many free lessons regarding self-defense during rush hour.
I am not sure what car she drove.
Our meeting point: The Wydown Coffee Bar, 1320 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009.
About Kim: Kim Roberts is the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the anthology Full Moon On K Street: Poems About Washington DC (Plan B Press, 2010), and she has written three books of poems. She’s received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the DC Commission on the Arts, and the Humanities Council of Washington.
Her research on Walt Whitman’s ten years as a resident of Washington, DC has been published in The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, as well as being featured in articles in The Washington Post and The Washington Times, on radio programs on WAMU and WFPW, and in panel presentations at Rutgers University, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and at the annual Washington Historical Studies Conference. She coordinated a citywide festival in 2005, "DC Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass."
We both drank tea from large white cups. The coffee shop worker kept opening the front door, and we withstood blasts of icy air while discussing the significance of Jewish last names.
Kim pointed out her last name doesn’t sound Jewish, because her family changed it upon coming to the U.S.
“I was left without a Jewish name and with a record of antisemitism in the family,” she said.
I asked her to explain.
“They came to the U.S. and pretended not to be Jewish,” she said. “As a result, I did not practice Judaism until college.”
“Which branch did you join?”
“Conservative, because I wanted to learn the ropes.”
I wrote her an email a few days after our conversation to ask her to expand on what we’d discussed during our conversation. She replied:
Although both my parents are Jewish, I was not raised with any strong religious identity. My parents were atheists who saw religion as a kind of personal weakness–a crutch…I came to Judaism late–it wasn't until I was in college that I started reading books about Jewish history and celebrating holidays. My last name was changed by my grandparents when they immigrated to the US–both sides changed their names. At various times I actually considered changing it back since “Roberts” strikes me as nothing less than a record of my family's internalized antisemitism. But in the end I couldn't change it–it's the name I've always been known by, and anything else feels fake. I guess I'm stuck with it.
Immigrants, already outsiders, had their names removed and modified for convenience. The name, whether kept or changed, labeled those immigrants as outsiders due to the fact that the keeping or changing of a name was raised at all. In an essay about American Jewish poetry, John Hollander suggests the idea that both poets and Jews are outsiders while, at the same time, carrying a greater burden: “It is not merely that modern poets and Jews are outsiders, it is more that both carry the burden of an absolutely inexplicable sense of their own identity and history.”
It’s the burden of every artist to carry a sense of identity and history. Have you felt that burden before? Identity and history weigh a lot. They take time. They are not the sorts of suitcase with rollers. They have to be dragged through crowds at the airport. The relationship to them is physical and often involves struggle. I have wrestled with them and asked them to go away. In the end, I am glad they have not disappeared. I’m drawn to them. What would I do without them and their burden? I, like all writers, have carried them so long that I do not know another way.
With American Jewish poetry, the poet balances art and non-art lives, Jewish and American identities and histories, geographical dysphoria between where they are and Israel. To be a Jewish poet is to carry all of this and still have the ability to document, to witness, and to explore.
David Lehman is the author of many collections of poems, including the New & Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013), Yeshiva Boys (Scriber, 2011), When a Woman Loves a Man (Scribner, 2005), and Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (with James Cummins, Soft Skull Press, 2005)). Among his books of non-fiction are A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Shocken Books, 2009) and The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), which was named a "Book to Remember 1999" by the New York Public Library. He edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), and is the series editor of The Best American Poetry. He is on the core faculty of the graduate writing programs at the New School and New York University. He lives in New York City, and a New and Selected Poems, will be out from Scribner in Nov. of 2013.
Kim Addonizio's books of poetry include Lucifer at the Starlite (W. W. Norton, 2009); What Is This Thing Called Love: Poems (2004); Tell Me(BOA Editions, 2000), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; Jimmy & Rita (1997); The Philosopher's Club (1994); and Three West Coast Women, with Laurie Duesing and Dorianne Laux (1987). Addonizio is also the author of In the Box Called Pleasure (1999), a collection of stories, and, with Dorianne Laux, the co-author of The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997). She co-editedDorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos (2002) with Cheryl Dumesnil. Addonizio was a founding editor of the journalFive Fingers Review. Among her awards and honors are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and a Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal. Kim Addonizio teaches in the M.F.A. program at Goddard College and lives in San Francisco.
The role of Jews in contemporary American poetry simply underscores the role of all poets—to speak the unspoken and the unspeakable, as beautifully as possible. As perpetual outsiders, Jewish poets may be especially well suited to the task. It seems so to me, based on the work in this anthology. —Liz Rosenberg
The question Matthew Silverman and I grappled with when putting together The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry was about what constituted a Jewish poem. The poets we solicited for poems wondered, too. A good number of poets wrote us to say they did not write on “Jewish themes.” We reassured them that this was fine.
In the essay “The Question of American Jewish Poetry,” John Hollander asks the same question:
The first hard question is: “Well, do these Jewish American poets write Jewish American poetry?” But that question is itself misleading. And matters are not made clearer by rephrasing it in the apparently sophisticated literary language . . . “Which poems reflect Jewish experience?” Such terms . . . mean little to poets, and perhaps even less to serious and inquiring literary critics. After all, can anything a Jew experiences—even apostasy—not be “Jewish experience”?
Matthew and I were at times no more certain than John Hollander. In a reflection that appears in the back of the anthology, Philip Terman states, “Judaism provides a good deal of the structures and tropes with which my personality is constituted and to which I’m drawn when I sit down to write. My childhood was guided by two calendars, my poetic education by two traditions. Every good poem transcends any one category.” We agree. Good poems go “beyond”—beyond Jewishness, beyond any single tradition—to explore, document, and reflect upon human experience.
After much discussion, we decided to include anyone who considered themselves Jewish, because we thought—and still do—that any American Jewish poet who writes poetry is writing both American and Jewish poetry even if they do not declare this outright. That said, we did not check ID cards. As editors, we decided to trust how others identified themselves.
Our job as poets is to make new what may be old and unoriginal. We do that each day we sit down at the desk to write. We recognize that words are screens—that, as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” that we’re here to make art and not check every fact. Hollander points out that if someone asks—naively, Hollander stresses—how American Jewish poetry reflects American Jewish experience, then that person is referring to a fictional book called “Experience” written by Modernism. We know that the writer must make new what’s old and can “steal” as long as the theft turns into original work. If, as Hollander says, “the true text of the world is always fresh and always renewing itself,” then every poem in this book aims to do the same whether or not it refers overtly to Judaism.
Sex chemistry is elegant and subversive, like how it comes crawling out of a hole where the idea of ‘Christine’ swallows itself and suddenly begins to bother everyone – she’s heavy, hot off the Paris plane with her handbag full of perfumed machinery, with her waterfall of blonde hair blowing with her embrace for Tony and Louise
especially Louise with whom she has been intensely in love for centuries and just like a snap election the two of them – silly buggers, they should know better – Chrissie, her machine, Louise and the hostess kiss and fall in love.
For many John Tranter (1943-) is the most professional of Australian poets, his long career being very productive and very consistent. The two early poems chosen, this week and next, are written with his hallmark confidence, zest and bite. (Friends have been known to term him most affectionately as the Honorary Consul for the New York School.)
JH: I started editing the press in 2000. Before that, it was a press that concentrated on writers west of the Mississippi River—you can read the history of it at our website, which will also tell you why the press was named “Ahsahta.” The press went from three editors publishing three full-length books a year to one editor publishing (this year) nine full-length books and two chapbooks (though I think I’ve reached my peak!). The university gives me a very small stipend—enough to print three books—and a part-time assistant who fills orders, but is otherwise hands-off; the rest of our budget comes from sales, primarily, and contest fees cover some publication costs.
What I wanted to do with Ahsahta was to move it from a regionalist to a national press, and to take some risks with it in a more literary direction. I also wanted to raise its profile. Because of that small stipend, I have enough of a cushion that the publication choices I make can have more to do with my literary interests than with my idea of what will “sell.” My literary interests are pretty wide-ranging, so I don’t worry about getting in a rut.
NA: Could you say a little more about your wide-ranging interests? I am asking this because I suspect some of the readers of this interview will want to know how they might fit into those interests.
JH: They’ve evolved over the years. I started writing as a formalist, and issues of formality are always interesting to me. We’ve done fairly traditional formal books (Ed Allen’s 67 Mixed Messages, which is also hilarious) as well as a number of books that work with the sonnet form, like Zachary Cotler’s and Noah Eli Gordon’s. I’m extremely interested in ecopoetry and the pastoral since working on The Arcadia Project and seeing all the fascinating directions it can go in. I love poems that foreground sound, both traditionally (like Brian Teare’s work) and more experimentally (like Heidi Lynn Staples’). Books that might be called confessional include Ethan Paquin’s Cloud vs. Cloud and Peggy Hamilton’s Questions for Animals. Recently I’ve taken on books that work with language as a way that reflects aspects of sexuality, particularly transgendered and ambiguous sexualities. Chris Vitiello’s work is unquestionably conceptual, which seems to be a dirty word in some parts! I like prose poems. I love poems that engage politics, like Susan Tichy’s.
But the danger in specifying what I like is that I’m open to things I haven’t seen before. One of the taglines I use in advertising is the single word “surprise.” I love to be surprised when I read a book! If I say, Ahsahta wants X or Y kind of writing, I run a risk of alienating a writer whose work I might just love. I don’t know how you’d explain Kate Greenstreet’s work, for example, but I am enriched and devastated by it and so glad I get to publish it; I wouldn’t want to discourage a Kate Greenstreet!
NA: I read a wonderful review by Djelloul Marbrook of the press, or rather of seven books published by Ahsahta Press, in which Djelloul expresses: “stunned amazement—and delight—that an American press has accepted the intellectual and prosodic challenges these poets represent and has lavished exacting production values on them: luscious paper, sensitive typesetting, striking covers. This is the poetry of which I had despaired. And I haven’t know what to do about it.”
I was wondering if you could respond to this review.
JH: I thought it was a surpassingly generous review, and I was both shocked and grateful to read it. I hadn’t really seen anyone do what he did—read enough of a press’s books to get a sense of what it was trying to do. One of my authors had pointed out a review of Marbrook’s to me and said, “You might want to add him to the reviewers list for Ahsahta,” so I sent him a note through Facebook asking for his address. He demurred because he’d never heard of Ahsahta and he wasn’t a regular reviewer for any publication. I think he asked me what kind of books we published, and I’m always at a loss to describe them. “I’ll send you a few,” I told him, and I actually ended up sending him seven of them that I thought did different things. And then I didn’t hear anything for quite a while. When I did, it was this amazing review of all seven books that also said things about Ahsahta I could never have dreamed (but had certainly hoped!) somebody would say. As an editor, you fly under the radar, and I felt as if someone had finally noticed me and given me some credit for my work.
NA: Do you think Ahsahta Press publishes more intellectually challenging books than the mainstream?
JH: Well, what’s mainstream? I would say that we publish intellectually challenging books, yes. I’d like to think people spend time with them rather than skim through and move on, and that they could reread each one profitably. The word I like is “interactive,” which suggests that the reader is engaged in a process during reading rather than just receiving something more along the lines of entertainment. Nothing against entertainment, but there are plenty of other places to go for it, and I think of poetry as art. What we publish may not go with your couch, so to speak, but it could challenge something you used to think about the world and make you re-think it. It could take your breath away. It could make you fall in love with words as well as with ideas.
NA: I love that ending. “It could make you fall in love with words as well as with ideas.” I think that’s a great description of Ahsahta Press.
JH: Thanks! I think it’s a description of what I want out of a book of poems.
NA: Do you think Ahsahta Press, as Djelloul Marbrook suggests, is the publisher of America’s avant-garde poetry?
JH: I love that he said that. I wouldn’t say we’re publishing “the” avant-garde—of course I wouldn’t. I don’t even really know what to do with that term and there are plenty of good presses making interesting books. But you’re taking his statement out of context; he was saying that we publish work that other presses might blow off because of its arduous formatting or intellectual demands, and I do think he may have a point there. Fortunately, I have more than 35 years of typesetting experience, so I can handle arduous formatting in avant-garde work.
I think I’m looking at both form and subject when I select a book, and I tend to like things that push the envelope. Because I teach in an MFA program, I’m reading a lot of new books, looking for things to use in class, and there are a lot of books out there that are perfectly fine but that stick to a kind of pattern, to any of many patterns. There’s still a lot of influence from mid-20th-century writers, for example.
NA: I just read one of your recent books, Dragon Logic, by Stephanie Strickland, a book which defies description and is utterly magical. How did you come across Stephanie’s work?
JH: I first read a chapbook of Stephanie’s that was put out by State Street Press, the press that also published my first chapbook. I got to meet her at an AWP lunch that Judith Kitchen of State Street Press set up. Not long after that, Stephanie’s True North and my The Green Tuxedo were selected together for the Ernest Sandeen prize at University of Notre Dame Press. I saw her subsequently at an AWP and we got to talking about digital poetry. I ended up working with her on a digital version of her poem “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,” which took about a year to complete, long-distance. I’ve always admired her science-driven work (well, all her work!), and asked her to send me something. It isn’t always easy to find a publisher for these books that defy description! The first book of hers I published was Zone : Zero, which had an interactive CD in it.
NA: I thought maybe I would ask Stephanie to talk about Dragon Logic. Stephanie, if you were to describe this collection, how would you begin?
SS: Dragon Logic wonders . . . where have we gone . . . as our face-to-face world threatened from so many directions slips into potentially infinite virtual spaces. The slippage happened suddenly, worldwide, and we don't know whether it makes us irrelevant, provides an escape from apocalyptic problems, or could be welcomed as a new direction for human life. These poems are where I wrangle this increasingly invisible dragon-in-the-room.
NA: What is the “dragon in the room?” And why dragons?
SS: Dragons are mythical and abstract—mythic embodiments of abstract power, from the snake in Eden, to devouring sea monsters, to the latest special FX apocalyptic creation from Hollywood. The dragon hunt that matters for me is tracking the beast as it slips, dizzyingly, from real to configurational (electronically generated) space, always aware that where we live, in either case, is the belly of this beast.
NA: Could you provide an excerpt from the book?
Burning Briar Scanning Tunnel
there is a zombie at the wheel who finds acceptable all risk
( his flesh looks like mine )
a crinkle monkey in the swamp mind tricky and brisk
( his moves feel like mine )
headless mannequin draped white print snakeskin dress
( pale fakery filling me with dread )
a boneless man used up by apparatchik juggernaut
( scrivener like me )
the one who hoped to poach cockroach strategy adrift
( like me time-amnesic overreaching )
cord-cut all beyond the call to heal or heel fold molt
SS: Janet does beautiful book design and page design. She is as particular as I am about the minutest details of text appearance. Her instincts about poems are superb. Many of the poems in Dragon Logic, and in my prior Ahsahta book, Zone : Zero, are challenging to set, so I wanted them to be in Janet’s hands. Long ago we worked together on an electronic poem, Ballad of Sandand Harry Soot.
NA: Janet, could you talk a bit about that process?
JH: I was very interested in hypertext, and had begun experimenting with a program called Storyspace from Eastgate Systems. Stephanie had written a poem intended as a hypertext and was also very interested in Storyspace, but we got into talking about how the short lifespan of operating systems and browsers and software made it difficult to write a hypertext that people might actually be able to read a few years down the line. I offered to make a hypertext in HTML that would work with any browser & operating system, and we got to work on the project almost without realizing how big it was going to be! I remember one Thanksgiving morning talking for hours with Stephanie about the number of ways a person could read through the materials. The poem is still available here, and it still looks the way it did back then, so I’d say we succeeded.
NA: How do you find your writers? Are they mostly contest winners? Do you solicit submissions?
JH: I find many writers through the Sawtooth Poetry Prize contest—the winners, of course, but also other manuscripts that I may have fallen in love with during reading that don’t get selected by the contest judge. I’ve gotten some manuscripts (like Dan Beachy-Quick’s Spell and Kate Greenstreet’s case sensitive) “over the transom,” submitted unsolicited. And I’ve solicited books, too, like Stephanie’s. Once I’ve published an author, I like to be open to doing more of that author’s books, but some of these people are so prolific I can’t possibly keep up with them! In May, Ahsahta had an open reading period, but I got so many manuscripts it took until nearly September to choose one; I can’t do that every year by myself: I’m also a professor and a poet, and I need creative time. Right now, I’m not taking new books except through the Sawtooth contest, which opens in January.
Contests put writers in front of me whose work I’ve never seen before, and I am always glad when we get a winner whose first book it is. (Karen Rigby’s Chinoiserie was one; Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s In No One’s Land was one; David Bartone’s first book, Practice on Mountains, won this year’s contest and will be out in January 2014.) People don’t like submitting to contests, I know, but it’s the only way I know of to get writers completely unknown to me to submit. But I think nobody should enter a contest if they don’t really love what the press does, so that the entry fee won’t seem wasted. I like to think that all the entrants to our contest would be proud to be published by us.
NA: An accomplished poet, you clearly have such a passion for editing, and the books you publish are so beautiful. How do you balance your editorial interests with your teaching and writing life?
JH: Not very well, I’m afraid. Editorial work—reading submissions, editing the books (which takes different amounts of time depending upon the nature of the project), proofreading—is only the tip of the iceberg. I have some grad students during spring semester help me out with reading the contest manuscripts in a class set up to teach them about small presses, but grad students are in school to write their own work, not work for the press. I have to do the rest of it if it’s going to get done—the website, the catalog copy, promotional pieces, designing ads, all of that. I also typeset and design the books, and take care of the financial aspects of the press. It’s a labor of love. I have tended to feel that my obligation to my authors should take precedence over my own writing, which is why I’m happy to be on sabbatical now, getting to give a bit of attention to my own work. Usually I am also teaching workshops and literature courses.
NA: You have a Fulbright in Hungary coming up?
JH: Yes, I’ll be in Budapest for four months. I’m looking forward to it very much. I’m working with Hungarian writing students in an American Studies program there.
NA: What are some of the happiest moments for the press? Feel free to provide links.
JH: The Marbrook article you quoted above, because it was such a bolt from the blue. Getting our first NEA grant, which was to support publication of The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. Editing & designing Tony Trigilio’s book of Elise Cowen’s poetry has been so great—it comes out in March 2014. Rusty Morrison's Laughlin Award for the true keeps calm biding its story and Brian Teare's Lambda Award for Pleasure were two wonderful moments. Every year during the Sawtooth contest, we have a day of reckoning when everyone presents their favorite manuscript and champions it—that’s a really exciting and happy time.
NA: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
JH: I wish poets were less eager to condemn each other’s poetry and aesthetics, the whole “poetry wars” thing. Poet-critics can seem intent on denigrating the work of others who don’t conform to their predilections, as if that would make their own work more important somehow. It’s self-serving. I have a vision of what I want to publish at Ahsahta, but that’s different from decreeing that nobody else is doing anything good. I would never say that. I think there’s a lot more to celebrate than to complain about.
NA: I’d love to close with a selection from one of your books.
Janet Holmes is author of five books, most recently The ms of my kin. She is director and editor of Boise State University’s Ahsahta Press (ahsahtapress.org), editing and publishing seven to ten books of poetry per year, and is a professor in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Twice included in the Best American Poetry series, she has had fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Fondation Ledig-Rowholt (Switzerland), and Fundación Valparaíso (Spain). In 2014, she will be in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here. Follow Nin on Twitter here.