In the exploration of borders and boundaries of poetry, I can think of no better guides than Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. They both graciously agreed to participate in a discussion of what’s happening in poetry at the moment– poetry as outsidered, what identity can mean, where and why boundaries are erected and dismantled.
Following are excerpts from an email exchange I had with Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris that we hope will serve to inspire further conversations. –Betsy Fagin, Poetry Project Newsletter Editor.
BF: I originally approached you both in hopes of generating a discussion around international poetry, poetics and poetry communities and I just have a few symbols of what’s happening at the moment that keep coming to mind: wall, border/boundary, refuge. One thing I’m curious about and would like to examine is how the current poetry scene here in the U.S. interacts with or is immune/oblivious to this political moment: border walls (U.S., Gaza Strip, India/Pakistan, Ireland, Cyprus, N./S. Korea, E.U. etc.), efforts to exclude or accept refugees (Syria) and migrants, newly opened boundaries (Cuba).
Maybe we can start off by discussing what these images can mean or represent in relation to the contemporary avant-garde poetry scenes we know and love. What are the borders around poetry right now? Where is refuge? How are boundaries erected and crossed? How seriously do we defend our borders and why? I’m asking what sound like political questions, and they are, but I feel like related, relevant patterns and answers can be reflected in the microcosms of our poetry worlds.
JR: For myself the issue of an international or global poetry came alive in the late 1950s and still more so in the 1960s, while the great event for many of us as poets was the emergence of the “new American poetry,” in which I also played an active if still subsidiary part. For the American side of it we experienced the emergence and assertion of a poetry that drew strength from the culture and language in which we shared most immediately, an American moment that seemed sometimes to obliterate the traces of other contemporary languages and cultures. Being “in the American grain,” as Williams had it, was good enough as far as it went, but for me there was always the wider world, and my roots, like Williams’ for that matter, went back to other places, other times. The disparity, if that’s what it was, was brought home to me, in a conversation with Donald Allen, shortly after his big anthology appeared. What I carried away from that was Allen’s telling me that I was, in contrast to the poets in his book, part of an “international school” of poetry. That description stung at first but I later grew to love it.
PJ: In a strangely or not so strangely inverse movement, I saw myself ab initio as an “international poet” in continuous exile & nowhere at home given that I chose to write in my fourth language & moved from Europe to the US in 1967 (though I did keep on moving, as the song says…). German, French & francophone poetries were there from the start. If in the late sixties I had one aspiration, it was to become an… American poet, and so I intensely studied and tried to imitate Ginsberg & Williams & Olson to enter that “American grain.” Doesn’t seem to have worked out exactly that way — I cannot escape my “native internationalism,” if I’m permitted a punning oxymoron.
I’m in Europe right now, & your mention of “walls” and “borders” immediately resounds: If the major political & cultural effort for the 1/2 century after WW2 was to break down walls & create an open European space, this seems to in great danger right now. The wall between the two Germany’s may have come down in ’89, but meanwhile some 50 new walls have been built: hundreds of miles of them, from the Spanish “possessions” in North Africa to Denmark! Walls & borders are right now an area of investigation for geographers, philosophers, political scientists, economists — & maybe it is time for poets to make thinking about these actual walls reemerge at a time when we also believe ourselves to live & work in the real? fantasy? world of global accessibility via internet & social media.
In the US unhappily it feels right now as if much thinking, or rather, much bickering that passes for thinking, has to do more with identity squabbles, personal, ego-identities using perceived and often imagined walls as fake hindrances to vault over, while neglecting to analyze or engage with actual walls, borders, barriers at the level of a, or of many “we’s,” as they affect communities world-wide. And world-wide has to be the focus; “national(istic)” focus is of little help — either in matters of politics or of culture, including poetry.