March 6, 2017
Douglas Messerli / Lecture "Wrestling with Words" (on his collection of poetry books given to Chapman University)
wrestling with words
As I recently told members of both of Martin Nakell’s poetry classes, graduate and undergraduate, during the four weeks of my substitution for him: one of the most important ways to discover how to write poetry, other than experimenting with words themselves, is to read every book of poetry you can get your hands on—particularly by poets who challenge language and form, or who simply make you think. As I argued throughout these four weeks, for me the more complex a poem is, the better; a poet’s job is to wade into the waters of cold reality through language, and in order to do that, in order to better comprehend what “truth” is, poets play and dance with words.
Any one poetry course, moreover, is just the beginning of a true poet’s vocation. Reading outside of a room where you practice the art and share it with others, is a necessary task. And luckily, the students at Chapman have one of the best collections of poetry in the country—a fact I know not because I have mined the shelves of Leatherby Libraries, but because I gave a collection of thousands of books of poems (along with fiction by the likes of the wonderful fiction writer Rebecca Goldman and her poet-fiction-writing husband Martin Nakell—and incidentally Rebecca’s fiction was first pitched to me by the great Norwegian fiction writer and head of Norway’s PEN, Thorvald Steen, not by her devoted husband—including all the numerous critical books and poetic analyses of the previous speaker, Marjorie Perloff—who has also donated numerous volumes of poetry to Leatherby), and who, strange to say, was my mentor; and I say that knowing that the ageless woman you see there and the old man you see here, shouldn’t make that possible.
There are far too many collections of poetry for me to simply give you all a list, so I will—if you bear with me—quickly try to take you on a whirlwind trip through some of the highlights of the collection, hinting through the names I drop how you might go on this literary journey through the library shelves. First of all I might contextualize my very large collection by making it clear that, unlike some of our current politicians, I believe in a global perspective. If I have learned nothing else over the decades of my involvement as both writer and publisher of poetry, it is that writers across the continents have generally been more inventive and innovative than their American counterparts, spawning hundreds of groups and movements that changed literature in general and helped to explain, in new ways, vast events that took place in 20th land 21st-century Europe, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.
My own presses, Sun & Moon and Green Integer explored through anthologies and volumes of individual collections a wide range of poetry from nearly every country on the planet. Besides my own 1,136-page From the Other joked was bigger than the Bangkok telephone book)—a very good place to start out on your voyage since it covers most of the interesting US figures through those years. My Green Integer press published eight volumes of international poets, some of them general, and others, such as no. 3 devoted to the poets of contemporary Brazil; no. 5 to innovative poetry in Southern California, including your teacher and me; no. 6 to a group of Dutch and Flemish poets who shortly after World War II began to radically explore the relationships between language and art in overlapping groups such as The Fiftiers—Remco Campert, Hugo Claus, Jan G. Elburg, Gerrit Kouwenaar, my own favorite Lucebert, Sybren Polet, Paul Rodennko, Bert Schierbert, and Simon Vinkenoog—and the international art group COBRA; and no. 7, devoted to young German poets who, at one time or another, held residencies at Villa Aurora, at the former home of German émigré Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta in Los Angeles, who played host to most of the German émigré artists during World War II: Bruno Frank, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, and numerous others.
Directly related to the volumes of the Project for Innovative Poetry is my vast on-line PIP site, which contains extensive biographies of about 1,000 poets to date, with a complete listing of their books (in both the original languages and in translation) as well as small selections of the poems themselves. This site also includes definitions of various poetic groupings, magazines, publishers, and other related terms. Very shortly, we will be publishing our first on-line anthology of works by about 40 contemporary American poets, beginning with John Ashbery and ending with younger writers such as Joe Ross and Rod Smith.
In single volumes my former collection is so extensive that it would nearly pointless to make up a list of names; Green Integer alone published some of the noted world poets in Adonis, Paul van Ostaijen, Paul Celan, Ko Un, Ingeborg Bachman, Oswald Egger, Dieter Gräf, and Nobel Prize winners Tomas Tranströmer and Nelly Sachs, to mention just a few.
I suggest you read around the anthologies first and then seek out the poets you like best or who speak to you through their individual collections. And don’t be afraid, of course, to take up some of my own poetry collections, those of Martin Nakell, and the wonderful poetic commentaries of Perloff.
I will post this short talk on my PIP site as well so that you can begin to better assimilate all the names I’ve just thrown at you.
For me and for most of the poets I like best, although it was a special time to explore, the classroom or poetry workshop is only the beginning of poetic life. I never read anything in my many years within the university compared with the hundreds and hundreds of volumes of poetry, fiction, and criticism I have read after leaving its confines. And, if you happen to stay in this area, you have now the added possibilities of the collections at Chapman and the extensive poetry collections of UCLA.
For anyone in this room you have my permission to drop me an email for a suggestion of what to read at any moment. That’s part of my gift to the Chapman community. And soon you will also be able to research the Green Integer archives—the correspondences and several manuscripts and corrections by these poets that go into making a book. There you’ll discover that most of these wonderful writers were real people, sometimes asking questions of their publisher-editor, sometimes just giving nice support to my projects, and often expressing their utter frustration with me and my staff. That’s the fun of it: I got to live with and meet hundreds of people, who like myself, had chosen to devote their lives to wrestling with language, trying to get behind the easy compromises we daily make with language, to comprehend the truth of the world in which they exist. Every day poets fight for the meaning so many others are ignored or forgotten. And that’s a tough but wonderful job which I commend to everyone.
Los Angeles, March 6, 2017Delivered at a lecture at The American War Letters Archive, Leatherby Library, Chapman University (with Marjorie Perloff).