Interview with Ed Foster, editor of Talisman Publishing House. New York City, January 2002.

OB: I was wondering if Talisman started as a publishing house or a journal first…

EF: The journal had it beginnings a little more than twenty years ago when Ted Berrigan was teaching with me at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Our offices were next door to each other, and he would insist in our talks with each other (which were long and frequent since the students we were supposed to be counseling were busy with their engineering and math) that anyone who was a poet should do nothing except whatever’s connected to poetry. That meant that when you weren’t writing, you should be doing something like teaching or editing poetry, or helping younger poets, which he did all the time. Young poets would go to Ted to find out what they should be reading and so forth. Ted’s advice to me, as to everyone, it seemed, was to start a magazine. There was a group of poets from New Jersey, for example, who used to come to his class — Joel Lewis was one of them — and he would encourage them to do a magazine, which they eventually did. It was called Gaede’s Pond, and it published much good work. There have been many magazines over the years that owed their life to Ted.

Ted died in 1983, and not long after, I went to live in Istanbul. I was not happy when I had to move back to New York, but then I thought, well, what could I do that would make this tolerable, and I remembered Ted’s advice about a magazine. I decided to do that and build it around interviews. Alice Notley was the first person I interviewed. That was in the summer of 1987. I remember that it was terribly hot, and we sat on the floor in her apartment, and I tried to ask sensible questions. But eventually we just started talking, and the interview became informal, just talk between friends. I had thought that interviews should be like those that the Paris Review had made famous, clearly structured and formal, so when I transcribed the interview, I tried to give it those qualities, rewrote things we’d said, and so forth. Alice’s response was, Edward Foster, put my words right back in! So, of course, I did, and the result was much more satisfying than the formal version. And then, for the most part, the interviews from Alice’s to Gustaf Sobin’s to Maureen Owen’s became conversations rather than conventional interviews. Talisman interviews, as a result, are quite different from most that preceded them. They tend to be informal and spontaneous. The interviews with William Bronk, for example, are exact transcriptions of what we said. Even in interviews where there were changes — and in some cases the revisions and additions are thorough — that informal quality remains.

Talisman books began in the early ’90s, several years after the journal. William Bronk was a close friend whose most recent publisher had been North Point. They closed in 1992 or thereabouts, and it looked, for a while, as if his new publisher might be Farrar Straus. But he didn’t want to be published by what he considered a big, impersonal company, particularly one that had published Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Bill’s major book was Life Supports, and few things made him angrier than for someone to confuse his book with Lowell’s. Then one of the smaller publishers offered to do one of his books, Some Words, but for reasons I never fully understood, he was not happy with them and complained endlessly. So one day, when he had a new manuscript, I asked if he would like Talisman to publish it. And he said, "Ed, I thought you’d never ask !"

Meanwhile, Doug Oliver had edited a selection from Alice Notley’s earlier books, several of them mimeographed and out-of-print or difficult to find. He and Alice and I were having dinner one night, and I asked about publishing it, and they thought that would be a good idea.

I had no intention of doing more than those two books, but by the time I had finished doing Bill’s, he had another ready. After that, the manuscripts began to arrive, and I’ve never had much free time since. It was clear that a serious commitment had to be made; it was becoming very hard to distribute and sell books of poetry. Corporations were buying literary publishers, and the chain stores were increasingly reluctant to give poetry the attention it had received in independent bookstores. At first I believed that it might be possible to make enough money with the books to help subsidize the journal, but in fact no Talisman book — with the possible exception of a book of interviews and the anthology of young poets — has ever paid its way. It’s all but impossible, given the system as it exists now. But the other side of things is that the quality of the Talisman list over the last eight years or so, at least in poetry, surpasses that of almost any corporate publisher you could name. Obviously that’s a personal and subjective statement, but I believe it. Terrible things happened when publishers were suddenly responsible to the accounting office if they wanted to keep their jobs.

OB: Has this trend in the publishing world continued?

EF: Well, yes. There’s a lot of good work out there which, in a better time, older established presses would have published but which is now left for the newer independent presses to do. You’d be surprised how many people are working overtime or holding an extra job just so that what in a better time the big companies might publish will get to the bookstores.

OB: Originally, Talisman magazine was only interviews, is that correct?

EF: No. The interviews were there in order that poets would have an opportunity to talk about their poetics and its relation to their work and, pointedly, about themselves, but that was only one thing the magazine set out to do. At that time, there was a foolish notion around — foolish to me at least — that the self was socially constructed and nothing more. That in turn would relegate the lyric to the dustbin, or at least make it seem much less important than it had been for hundreds, indeed thousands, of years. On the other hand, poets I admired kept writing lyric poems, and in some cases, like the last ones Ted wrote — “Red Shift,” for example — they were among the best. So the interviews gave an opportunity for poets to talk about themselves and their work in ways other than as emanations of some political or historical process.

OB: I am really interested in that notion of the lyric or of lyricism, both in France and in the United States. The situation is slightly different in both countries. The notion of lyric here is sometimes vague and can have a variety of different attributes, it can either mean a short poem or lyric can also be equated with the expression of the self, what some would consider to be a bourgeois category. What is it that some people resented in Berrigan writing lyrical work?

EF: Well, “resented” may be too strong, but it’s certainly true that earlier works like Ted’s Sonnets, constructed with bits and pieces from his reading and other sources, had a greater appeal for some writers than the apparently more lyrical work he did later. (In fact, there is much lyricism in the early work, but that seemed to be overlooked.) In any case, these poets and critics felt anything involving the lyric was a kind of backsliding and were not happy with poems like “A Certain Slant of Sunlight,” which incorporates memories of his childhood. It’s beautifully done, but it’s not what these people thought the next step in poetry would be. They were dead wrong, of course. Alice Notley’s recent and very personal long poem Disobedience seems to me far more useful to a young poet than the comparatively arid and linguistically-driven poems that were supposed to be models for our future. Those who declared the lyric dead did produce much that was, and is, extremely useful and perhaps did more than anything to expand the ways people talked about poetry and, for that matter, wrote it. At the same time, however, it denied too much.

Talisman was supposed to be as eclectic and various as possible, openly receptive to a great range from fairly conventional lyric poems to works shying away from the lyric voice or from the personal. It was to be a magazine in which you could find poets as different as Anne Waldman and Bruce Andrews. But then there’s the question: how can you insure that this happens? You can’t depend on submissions. My initial idea was to include interviews with a range of poets who would collectively suggest the spectrum of work being done, and so there was the interview with Alice Notley in the first issue, William Bronk in the second, Clark Coolidge in the third issue, Susan Howe in the fourth, John Yau in the fifth, Rosmarie Waldrop in the sixth, and so on. Then we invited people with whom each of those poets was somehow connected to contribute to the issue that featured his or her interview, and in that way, we hoped to indicate a community that was various and complex and interesting, much more so than if the only connection had been similar poetics. This worked fine for the first issues, but soon people were sending unsolicited material. Our initial response was to return it, but some was just too good not to publish, and this was especially true of work by a few younger writers. Nonetheless, we really wanted to avoid becoming the kind of magazine or journal that is essentially a miscellany of new work, in which each contributor has his or her own page. There’s a place for that kind of magazine, but Talisman was not, and never has been, one of them. Over the years, the magazine started to do many other things, and perhaps it tried to do too many. At this particular point, we’ve reached the end of the first series and will be publishing four related issues (#23-26) in a single volume. It includes contributions from a vast range of critics and poets — Marjorie Perloff to Gustaf Sobin, Loss Glazier to Kathryne Lindberg — which collectively, I hope, provide a map of where American poetry, at least innovative American poetry, has been in the last thirty or thirty-five years.

OB: You have published Ted Berrigan’s Selected Talks. I am interested in this idea of conversation, of talk. What do you make of the relationship between poetry and conversation?

EF: Ted knew more about the practice of poetry than anyone else in his generation, I believe, or at least could talk about it in ways that were useful to beginning writers, and he always seemed willing to talk with them. You’d visit his apartment, and it might be crowded with both established poets and younger ones, and there would be constant talk, ideas from people of all kinds of backgrounds and poetic constellations. Ted, truly, was one of the great talkers of his generation, and at times it felt as if the talk itself rather than the ideas was paramount. But listen to a recording of him reading his poems; it’s the same Ted, but there’s something in his voice, and the cadence, that shifts. Poetry is clearly not just talk, even good talk, although at times it may borrow speech rhythms, and in Ted’s case, the borrowings clear enough. But there’s no reason why poetry needs to do that. It’s just one of the resources or strategies poems can use. Some misinformed academics argue that Whitman’s poetry has roots in the way the language was spoken in his time, but can you imagine him or anyone actually saying in conversation, “Come now I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation”?

OB: I was wondering if you insisted on a relationship between poetry and poetics and if so, I was wondering in what manner having interactions, conversations with poets, doing interviews with them helped you establish and steer your publishing line and more generally a certain esthetic line.

EF: No, Talisman doesn’t follow any predetermined esthetic line and never did. You can’t imagine an esthetic that includes Rosmarie Waldrop, Samuel Menashe, Maureen Owen, Joel Oppenheimer, and Gustaf Sobin. We tried to keep Talisman as various as possible. On the other hand, we do avoid mainstream work and work which all too overtly follows some theory.

The first of these is for the most part simply predictable and boring, and the second is, well, predictable and boring, too. I don’t think that critical or literary theory is the best ground for poetry, though it may work at times. I’m told that Marjorie Perloff suggested at a conference a few years ago that poets such as those in Margy Sloan’s Moving Borders might serve themselves better by reviewing each other’s work than by dealing with their poetics in terms of literary theory. I happen to like some of the theoretical pieces Margy included in her book, but I understand the criticism, and essentially I agree with it. I’ve taught literary theory in various graduate seminars, and I’m fairly knowledgeable about the subject, but it often seems that what you get in theoretical writing is a kind of obsession with one small aspect of the spectrum, a particular set of ideas. And that can be useful, but there’s nothing better in terms of finding out what poetry really is than listening to a poet talk about the actual experience of writing a poem or discussing his or her perceptions of someone else’s work.
William Bronk would read convoluted theoretical essays about his poetry and say, “Ed, I don’t know what they are talking about.” And he meant it. Theory generally exists in a discourse radically different from poems as such. Meanwhile, Bill’s comments on poetry as he practiced it could be as astute and insightful as anything a poet of his generation ever wrote or said. Theory has its place in the world, but it’s a very different kind of discourse, and poets do themselves a disservice, I think, when they try to align their poetics with what they find in Gadamer, say, or Kristeva.

Poets reviewing poets is a different matter, particularly when one is willing to say why he or she doesn’t like another’s work. You may not agree with what is being said, but perhaps you’ll learn more about the diversities and differences among poets than you’ll ever get from Heidegger’s impossible prose. As soon as poetry is subsumed under any theoretical construction, its potential range will be limited. I think it’s worth remembering that historically analytical discourse arose long after poetry and very soon set itself up in opposition to it. For the most part, they remain adversaries, friendly at times, but adversaries nonetheless. They generally entail very different ways of using the mind.

OB: Do you think therefore that contemporary poets should be more concerned about the directions that poetry is taking but also about that they should reflect on the place of poetry in American society?

Do you think that criticism and reflection therefore are necessary companions to poetry writing?

EF: The only necessary goal is to write poems, and it doesn’t follow that a poet should think about his or her work theoretically, nor for that matter need a poet be concerned with whatever course poetry appears to be following at the time. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be aware of these things either. It’s only that there is no necessary connection.
I like to read what one poet has to say about another poet’s work. What is said often tells me less about what’s being discussed than about the person who is discussing it. In general, I’d rather see reviews done by poets than by people who are observers. There are exceptions like Marjorie Perloff, who always has wonderful insights. But for the most part, I think that critics, no less than poets, are primarily concerned with their own preconceptions, and given the choice when the subject is poetry, most of the time I’d prefer a poet’s preconceptions to a critic’s.

OB: So you think that discussions done by poets on other poets’ works do not have the same problem of preconceptions and misconceptions?

EF: Oh, no, there are certainly misconceptions. One wholly respectable source for poems is what you might call “creative misreading.” Poets seem to misread and misinterpret each other all the time. Duncan thought that Pindar meant this or that, but it doesn’t matter if that’s what Pindar really meant; all that matters is that Duncan got his poem. Poetry communities in the U.S. are deeply divided from each other, and most people simply don’t understand what others are doing. But it doesn’t matter as long as new poems get written.

OB: Let me ask you a question about the forthcoming book, the four combined issues of Talisman titled The World in Time and Space :Reviews/Essays/Interviews on the Revolution in American Poetry and Poetics at the End of the Twentieth Century and the Beginning of the Twenty-First. I was wondering about a word in the title : what kind of revolution are you talking about in that book?

EF: I don’t think you can do quite the same thing today that a poet might have done in earlier generations, or at least that there is no special reason to try. I mean, would you really want to write today the way Wallace Stevens did? I remember Kenneth Koch once saying that if his students really worked at it, they might be able to produce lines that Shakespeare could have written. But then Koch asked why would anybody want to do that? The Alexandrians tried to stabilize poetic forms and objectives, and as a result Catullus, a few generations later, wrote some poems that are remarkably like Sappho’s, but his are in Latin, and her Greek was as foreign to him as Dante’s Italian must be to most of us now. Change is real and absolute. Most of the poets Talisman has published began their work in the shadow of someone from an earlier generation — Jack Spicer, say, or Frank O’Hara. But most of these predecessors are dead, long dead in some cases, and even in the few instances where they are still alive, their work may carry the aura of cultural moments long past. On the other side of it, many of those who began their work in the 1970s and 1980s will themselves be dead in a generation or two and, as much as the poetry of Tennyson or Pope, theirs will be frozen in an increasingly obscured past. How many of the older respected poets working now are going to be around in a generation or two? They are going to disappear, and it is going to happen very soon. I should think it would be very important, therefore, to record now what has been happening to poetry rather than to leave history to those future anthologists and critics who are now studying in universities where the poetry of the last few generations is seen essentially as small modifications and adjustments of whatever has gone before. In that world, Clark Coolidge and Gerrit Lansing and Leslie Scalapino are not going to get as much attention as . . . well, you know who.

OB: When you use the term ""innovation," is it to avoid the term "avant-garde"?

EF: There’s an essay by Jackson Mac Low in Talisman #8, in which he says we should not use “avant garde” since it’s a military term. I tend to agree, but I don’t much like that bland substitute "innovative." We use it only because there’s nothing better.

Some would say that the avant garde is a thing of the past. But that’s wrong. There’s always been avant garde. Even in Alexandria. Or imperial Rome. Or medieval Paris. Someone, always, will be moving things along, even if what he wants is to resurrect the past. He’ll find very soon that in a new culture and language, exact repetition is impossible. The problem lies with those who see the changes and then try to hide them or obliterate them, and that’s, I think, very much the current situation. There are those who would argue that there is no avant garde now. But anyone who looks with any care will see that, say, Notley’s Descent of Alette is no mere reworking of traditional formulas and expectations. It does new things and is exciting because of that. To say that the book is “innovative” is not very helpful, but if we’re not to use “avant garde,” I don't know what else to use in its place.

OB: Is it possible to sketch the directions that American poetry is taking today? Is it what you are trying to do in those four volumes?

EF: Well, no. Those four issues are concerned with history, and they stop somewhere around the day before yesterday.

It’s hard enough to suggest precisely where American poetry has been in the last few years. In editing these issues, Joe Donahue and I felt that there were certain critically important figures — one of them would be Robert Creeley, for example, and another would be William Bronk — who had to be covered. We made a list of these and realized that we could not possibly include all, at least in detail. So we decided to select poets from radically different poetic persuasions as representative cases. We could at least try to suggest the range if not cover it in detail. The same held true for other matters. For example, there have been a number of important poetry communities defined according to geography in recent years — New York and San Francisco being the most obvious, but there’s Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and others. To deal with all of these adequately would have been impossible. As it is, the book is almost 800-pages long. I’m sure that some people will be miffed because they won’t get the attention they feel they deserve. But choices had to be made. To be comprehensive was impossible.

What really matters, I think, as one of us after the other vanishes from this world, is that poetry itself survive in as much diversity as possible. The belief that any of our names, or even individual works, have to survive is arrogant. I remember years ago walking through the great necropolis in Termessos. Thousands, tens of thousands, of people, including no doubt quite a few poets, tried to memorialize themselves there with magnificent tombs and monuments, but not a single one of them is remembered today. And that oblivion is where we are all headed, but poetry itself doesn’t have to share that fate. The useful thing now, it seems to me, would be to keep a record of the tremendous variety of things that we have learned to do rather than merely return to the old Alexandrian notion of preserving the “best,” which in fact reflects the prejudices of the moment, while obliterating memories of everything else.

OB: So all four volumes are going to be combined in one single book?

EF: Yes, that’s right, all four issues in one; it’s pretty massive. I’ve spent much of my life in academia, and I can tell you that few academics, even those whose specialty is contemporary literature, have a clue as to what has been happening in poetry. I’d like to believe that the volume will help to educate them, but I’m always pessimistic, and I doubt that will happen. Still I’d like to think that what we’ve put together will help turn people away from the idea of the “great” poem. I think that’s a very damaging concept, and actually evil, because it leads one to wiping away all traces of some interesting poetry. It runs against our politics, too, I think. We really have to get away from the notion of “great” poems, which is crippling in a democracy in which everyone deserves to speak.

OB: How do your esthetics fit in your publishing line? We’ve been talking about you as a publisher, what about you as a writer?

EF: My books — criticism, biography, literary history as well as poetry — derive from esthetics and problems very different from those behind Talisman. I grew up in New England and absorbed through my family residues of transcendentalism in one of its bleaker incarnations — a Calvinist/transcendentalist ethic, if you will. Later that merged with various gnostic notions, and I think, or would like to believe, that this is where the poetry began. But, of course, it’s all very highfalutin to say things like that. After my mother’s death, I discovered among her papers some things I’d written when I was fourteen or so, and they’re no better than you’d expect from anyone that age, but the sensibility that you’ll find in the later poems is already fairly clear.

In any case, this has nothing to do with Talisman and the way it is edited. I usually say that Talisman, both as a journal and as a publishing house, is anarchistic and eclectic, which is descriptively true, but the principal involved in most of the planning is really pragmatic in the way William James used that word. In short, one maintains the widest possible field of activity and then sees if there is some principle that holds together whatever it includes. One doesn’t start with a principle or an esthetic and then find representative cases, which is the way most journals are edited; the results there are likely to be illustrations of predispositions. Primary Trouble, to give an example of the way we do things, was edited by three poets — Leonard Schwartz, Joe Donahue and myself — whose work has little in common with each other’s. The one thing we share is an ability to sit in a room together and be relatively civil. In large part because of our disagreements and differences — which are considerable — the book, I believe, suggests a tremendous range of poetic work outside the mainstream. There is no single agenda aside from that, although, of course, there are those who can’t read any anthology, or any poetry, without imagining an agenda behind it, and so some critics have imposed their own notions on the book. I was amused to hear of a former poet laureate, someone right out of the mainstream as those people generally are, who said the book was an anthology of language poetry. It’s beyond my knowing how anyone who knew anything about poetry could see Eileen Myles or Simon Pettet as a language poet, but perhaps when you’re out there floating in the mainstream, winning your prizes and all the other perks, you’re not concerned with much except what’s carrying you along.

OB: Does it mean that you make a distinction between your esthetics as a publisher and your esthetics as a writer?

EF: Absolutely. They derive from radically different notions. What they have in common is a refusal to believe that there is some principle in the universe that predetermines absolutely what is “good” or “better.” That’s a dangerous notion. There are certain poets who will capitalize on it, whether or not they really believe in it, and will do almost anything to have the spotlights turned in their direction. They follow the prescriptions of the day, get their acolytes, reviews, and so forth. But doing this, they’re more than likely to compromise the seriousness of their work. Whitman, to take a famous instance, tried that route and, as we know, compromised himself by obscuring the homoerotic sensibility in his early poems. In the 1850s and 1860s, homoeroticism was controversial but not forbidden; by the 1880s and 1890s, it was beginning to seem shameful and abnormal. Things that could be a powerful source for poems were now to be shut away, and Whitman, who wanted to be the representative American poet, found some of the eroticism in those early poems was now embarrassing. Great poets had to be heterosexual poets, so he started telling people that he had many children, which, of course, he did not, and rearranged the order of some poems of Leaves of Grass in order that their fairly explicit homoerotic narrative, a record of events in his early life, be less conspicuous. Do poets do things like this now? Of course. Many shape their work according to, or make their work seem in line with, whatever the dictates of the moment may be. The result may be more readers and better reviews, perhaps even a prize, but the poetry, or at least the poet, is compromised. He or she has now all the integrity of the proverbial used-car salesman. An editor should avoid poetry that tries to make that kind of appeal, however subtlely it is done, or at least “contextualize” it, as they say, by setting it next to work that is more scrupulous in its intentions.

Of course, poetry that embraces popular notions and politics is generally the poetry that becomes popular. A famous case is Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is one of the most nauseating poems to come out of nineteenth-century America. However admirable Howe’s politics were (her “battle hymn” was virtually a national anthem in the North during the Civil War), her portrayal of religion as a slaughter in the pursuit of spiritual “truth” (“I have read a fiery gospel in burnished rows of steel,” etc.), strikes me as somewhat warped. Howe had good abolitionist connections, but she was also extremely wealthy and not likely to risk her life among the hundreds of thousands of young men who went to war singing her verses and who died horribly. It’s a case of the privileged few, however well intentioned, manipulating the many, and I have no sympathy with that or with any poet that promotes her or his work in this way. It may seem a massive leap to go from Howe to certain poets today, but the connection is in fact close. All poetry must necessarily carry the impress of the poet’s sensibility, and the words will reflect, however distantly, his or her beliefs and personality. But that does not excuse poetry that appears to give the poet the transcendent authority of an Old Testament prophet.

I grew up in western Massachusetts, and we had a great distrust of people from the eastern part of the state, particularly Cambridge and Boston. They were the preachers, the missionaries, the people who thought they were better than the rest and who seemed great critics of any voices but their own. They had also produced the most didactic poets — Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, and for that matter, Julia Ward Howe. I think poets in the western part of the state — people like Tuckerman, Dickinson, and the early Bryant — were preferable, if only because they had an ability to be solitary, to be alone, and did not spend their careers seeking fame. They rarely used their poetry as if they were missionaries, for the Calvinist heritage was still felt there, and people were too aware of their own shortcomings to preclude and silence others, even when it seemed clear that the others were self-evidently wrong. Talisman, both the publishing house and the magazine, has tried to maintain a corresponding sense that poems may have a greater interest as the work of isolated individuals in a common enterprise than as the work of the self-righteous or the would-be celebrities, who might better serve their natures by running for office.

OB: Do you consider therefore that Talisman has a quasi-pedagogical mission for general readers as well as for poets and writers?

EF: In the general sense I’ve just stated, the answer is clearly yes. But there are further issues, too. That Alexandrian notion of the “great poet” or “great tradition” may have had its validity when such decisions were made collectively, if indeed that ever happened. But in a culture like ours when those with huge financial resources and powerful connections make these decisions, we should be careful what we believe. In a corporate state, you don’t take unnecessary chances, and poetry is, or should be, always at risk. Some books of poetry sell very well in this country, but it tends to be poetry that does exactly what its audience expects. The risks are small. Meanwhile, there has been a tremendous decline in the small community of those who would read what I would call serious poetry — poetry, that is, where everything is truly at risk. The situation has worsened in the last eight years with the closing of independent bookstores. There is nothing, no money at all, behind an operation like Talisman, no one who can write a check to cover the shortfalls, and bills have to be paid. Consequently, there are many things that should get published that aren’t. For years, there was an angel out there called the Fund for Poetry, which would send checks from time to time. That was great because it meant one could publish a couple more books. But the money stopped coming, and a number of good manuscripts have had to be returned to the authors.

I was painting a room recently, and in order to alleviate the tedium, listened to NPR. In the midst of the babble about the Supreme Court and earthquakes in remote parts of the world, there was suddenly a poet, a real poet, reading his work. But this was someone whose books sell thousands and thousands of copies and whose work is, if nothing else, predictable — he’s done it before and done it often. I wonder what it would have been like if the poet they’d interviewed was genuinely a new voice. But I wouldn’t expect that to happen often. In a world like this, you have to be very grateful for those rare occasions when something like the Fund for Poetry comes along to help change the tide.

OB: Are they linked to the National Endowment for the Arts?

EF: No. The Fund for Poetry is (or was?) a mysterious ‘something’ that sends checks to poets. It’s like the Millionaire, that television show years ago where someone rings your doorbell and gives you a check for a million dollars. Well, it’s not that kind of money, but you might get a check for $5,000, and that would mean that a couple of more books could be published.
Talisman does not accept any money from poets to publish their work, although that is becoming more common elsewhere, and I have nothing against it. In fact I believe that, given the way things are now, if the author can pay for the book, he should; that will leave the money to publish someone who can’t afford the bills. Why should the publisher work overtime in a bookstore or an office in order to pay to publish your work? I very strongly believe, as Ted argued, that poets should be doing things to help poetry, not just themselves or even mainly themselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean a poet should do it by paying for his or her own book. It could be done as well by starting a magazine or a reading series or a website. But given the corporate world in which we live, some kind of effort is essential. It’s the way poetry might survive, beyond the ordinary and the predictable.

OB: The first time I met you at the Boston Poetry Conference in 2000, you gave a talk about the dire conditions of independent publishing in the U.S. From what you are telling me, I assume you are still as pessimistic as you were then.

EF: Oh, more so. It’s a horrible situation, and there are no clear solutions. It’s the nature of a corporate economy to feed on its own presuppositions, and it’s not likely to take risks with works that are by their nature subversive to the status quo, as any genuinely new work must necessarily be. In a corporate state, poetry, like everything else, must be packaged for an audience ready to receive it, and that means it has to be predictable. You can hear people say, "Oh, you can publish things on the web," and that’s true, but it’s not nearly the same thing as publishing a book with its attendant aura of finality and seriousness. Perhaps it shouldn’t be this way, but it is. When there were more independent bookstores and publishers and distributors, it was easier to do things than it is now. There was a network of interested people to review books and spread, if only by word-of-mouth, what was new and interesting. And, of course, books at that time stayed on the shelves long enough to find their readers, whereas now they may be shipped back to the publishers if they haven’t sold in six or nine months. I remember finding Howl in a very conservative New England bookstore. I was much too young to know who the Beats were — too young even to read newspapers, aside from the comics, with any regularity and know that the world out there was rapidly changing. But I remember well finding that dusty copy of Howl and standing there and being electrified by what I read. There are very few places where a person could have that experience today. If you’re dealing with something like poetry, you and your discoveries are at the mercy of strangers and happy accidents.

And then, too, there are fewer and fewer journals that risk significant reviews, rather than those sweetheart reviews. So where do you discover what to read next? There are very few magazines which encourage reviewers seriously to engage another’s work.

OB: What literary magazines are still doing that? Which ones would you recommend?

EF: Rain Taxi is one of those that are generally dependable. Another is First Intensity. And there are others, but there used to be a time in this country, not so very long ago, when even the local newspapers published poetry. It was often bad poetry, but at least it was there, and there would be reviews as well. In the 1960s, William Bronk might be reviewed in Iowa, but today you’d have to search a good many copies of even the biggest papers before you’d find much poetry reviewed.

OB: Could you tell me who your models are in terms of publishing tradition?

EF: The model is Copeland & Day. They existed in the 1890s and took tremendous chances in what they published. Fred Holland Day, who was the great photographer of his generation, better than Steiglitz, I believe, has interested me for some time. He and his firm published much that no other American publisher would touch. They did the American edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome with Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings, and this was very shocking stuff at that time. On the other hand, Copeland & Day also published Louise Guiney’s conservative work, shot through with her Irish Catholic morality. At that time, it was almost as upsetting to the moral watchdogs in Boston, where Copeland & Day were based, to publish such assertively Catholic poetry as it was to publish Beardsley’s erotic drawings. Guiney, for example, got a job as postmistress in a town near Boston, but because she was an Irish Catholic, many Protestants in her community refused to buy stamps from her, and at that time the postmaster or postmistress’s income depended on the number of stamps sold. So she was living on very little and in fear of losing her job, when the poets and artists in her area, probably organized by Day, started traveling a few extra miles to get their stamps from her. Day would do things like this. His photographs include some powerful homoerotic images, and that, of course, didn’t make him popular in many communities, but the most controversial thing he did — surprisingly so from our perspective — was to pose himself as Christ on the cross for a series of photographs. Some of these look more like a man having a tremendous orgasm than the crucified Christ, and whether it was for this reason or just the fact that anyone as controversial as Day should presume to picture himself as Christ, the result was a national scandal. But it doesn’t seem to have bothered him much, and he was shortly back at work publishing Guiney and photographing young men. He lost a fortune through his publishing company, but he was one of the few people out there who were doing the books that the big companies wouldn’t risk.

I think that his era is somewhat like our own. The big companies were publishing a great many books of poetry, but most of it was tame. Try to name some truly interesting American poets from the 1890s, the period when Copeland & Day were in business. You won’t find many, but there are a few such as Guiney and Vincent O’Sullivan and Stephen Crane, all of whom, you will not be surprised to hear, were published by Copeland & Day.

OB: Speaking of that period of time, you are very interested in the poet Stuart Merrill.

EF: Yes, he was like Fred Day, unable to align himself with the standards and expectations of the time. His solution was to abandon New York, where at his father’s insistence he was employed in a law firm, and to settle in Paris. In doing so, he set a model that would be common for American writers in the next few generations. Merrill was an exceptionally good poet, admired by everyone from Rexroth to Pound to Eliot, but he’s not much known in the United States today, in part because most of his work is in French, and Americans, as we know, believe the world needs only one language, and that’s English. Also Merrill was a Symbolist — Mallarmé had been one of his teachers — and Americans generally, if they know anything about French poetry, seem to believe it began with Apollinaire. But Symbolism is critical to American poetry, and Merrill is the first in that tradition. Jack Spicer’s esthetics, to take a much later example, are rooted in French Symbolism, and you cannot understand what he’s doing if you do not know the Symbolist milieu. The same is true of Robert Duncan. There are, of course, many lineages that have become obscure simply because people don’t read enough; to give another example, William Bronk’s poetics depend much, if not directly, on British estheticism. Poetry, finally, is a conversation, and you have to know the participants, and where they are coming from, if you’re going to understand what’s happening. Some people taking Pound’s early diatribes too literally, will say that he was an anti-Symbolist, and that’s simply not true. He didn’t work Merrill into the Cantos by chance.

OB: Talisman has published a lot of translations; could you tell us about your interest for translation as a literary practice?

EF: There was a time when Simon Pettet, Murat Nemet-Nejat, and others sponsored readings of everything from Caribbean to Romanian to Turkish poetry. American poetry communities were to some degree in contact with others abroad, and poets thought it was part of their work to translate, not necessarily for publication. It was one way you learned your craft or maintained it. The readings still take place, but not as often, and translations are done, but there’s an isolation that I don’t remember having been as serious in the past. Take Turkish poetry as an example; I’ve spent much time in Turkey, and I’m very interested in that culture. In Turkey, there’s some knowledge of American poetry, not much but there’s some, but try to find American poets who know the name of even one Turkish poet working now. And who are the Greek poets, who are the Romanian poets? There’s that line in the Frank O’Hara poem: "what are the poets in Ghana doing these days?" It’s a wonderful line, but don’t take it seriously. In fact it could have been quite interesting, given the way the world was organized at the time O’Hara wrote, to know what poets in Ghana were doing. The notion that we can stop listening to this poet or that, or that there is a privileged group of writers who should be published while others are ignored, is the sheerest nonsense, and it’s terribly destructive. It shuts people up, sets them aside, and establishes hierarchies of experts such as any democracy should be willing to deny. The result is fertile ground for corporations and institutions, which exist to perpetuate themselves. When they are in control, they teach a person not how to ask questions and where to look for something new, but rather what he or she should be looking for, what he or she should want to hear, and that in turn destroys the kinds of variousness that poetry can provide. Perhaps we’ve already reached that cul-de-sac; certainly some poets think so. I’d like to believe, however, this is just another phase through which we have to pass, as it was in the time of Copeland & Day. But I’m not sure. There are simply too many poets whom we once admired and who seemed to understand the need for variousness and difference, but who are now quite content to spin out there in their own celebrity, however limited that may be.


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