In my 1970 Introduction to the 1971 Caterpillar Anthology, I wrote:
Origin, The Black Mountain Review, the early Evergreen Review, Yugen, and Trobar came into existence [in the 1950s] out of the needs of a few individuals to make connections and to create a vehicle for their work in what was then a real desert. By the end of the sixties, greatly due to the work of these magazines and poets who edited them and printed their work in them, there had been a break-through, and as a poet living in NYC in 1967 I felt the task at hand was to create a magazine that would be organic to our needs and shape itself to the ongoing energies. Also I sensed that the emphasis on translation was less crucial in 1967 than it had been before, and that the bulk of attention should be given to what we were doing. I am now surer of this than I was four years ago and I think the first twelve issues of Caterpillar bear witness to this. There has been a decreasing amount of translated material in the magazine and for this anthology I have included only one translation: Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “A Fool’s Life.” I would prefer to introduce to a wider reading public the work of younger or not well known American poets and ask the reader to go back to past issues of the magazine for Artaud, Lorca, Pindar, Vallejo, Rilke, Celan, and Césaire.
My friend Diane Wakoski was then being published by Doubleday & Company, and thanks to her efforts, her editor there had offered a contract for A Caterpillar Anthology.
When I explained to Diane that it would be much better to wait until the end of the magazine’s run to anthologize it, she explained that her editor was leaving Doubleday and that the chances of a new editor picking up the project were slim. That a large NYC trade publisher would do such an anthology appealed to me a great deal, so I decided to do it based on the magazine’s first 12 issues. Caterpillar was to continue for eight more issues, ending with #20 in 1973.
Doubleday Anchor sold, as I recall, around 5000 copies of A Caterpillar Anthology and then, without warning, pulped all the unsold ones. While I suppose that this publication enabled a number of readers to discover the work of Robert Duncan’s magnificent 53 page “Rites of Participation” (from The H.D. Book) and notice N.O. Brown’s “From Politics to Metapolitics” presented in a poetic context, I now wish I had waited until after the final issue to attempt to get an anthology published. Issues 13-20 contain as much memorable writing as the first twelve, including Gary Snyder’s 100 page “Now, India,” Stan Brakhage’s essays on early film-makers, my translation of Artaud’s “Artaud the Mômo,”and engaging poetry by Theodore Enslin, Robert Kelly, Kenneth Irby, Jack Hirschman, Paul Blackburn, Rae Armantrout, Jerome Rothenberg, Daphne Marlatt, and Stephen Jonas, to name just a handful of the hundred or so contributors.
Were I editing A Caterpillar Anthology today, I would include more translations than I did in 1970. One problem in editing magazine-based anthologies has to do with deciding whether to emphasize the variety of materials in the magazine or simply printing the strongest writing. And then there is the matter of reviews, which I will address when commenting on editing A Sulfur Anthology.
Again, I will quote from an Introduction to describe the nature of my second anthology, Conductors of the Pit: Major Works by Rimbaud, Vallejo, Césaire, Artaud, Holan, published by Paragon House, NYC, in 1988:
In the course of the twentieth century, at certain points on the globe, there has ignited a poetry that goes for the whole, a poetry written in extremis, a poetry that attempts to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world. Such poetries challenge all living writers and would-be-writers to break out of easily-adapted molds (the poem as a single lyric object) and to face as Charles Olson once put it ‘the ongoing front of reality.’
Unfortunately, especially for the young, the poetry of César Vallejo, Aimé Césaire, Antonin Artaud, and Vladimir Holan, has not been, as it were, cross-indexed, so as to draw forth the superimposed configuration that it represents. The difficulty in doing so is not, as one critic says, because the steppe is arid and covered with monotonous vegetation, but because twentieth century world poetry is a combined rain forest and a “new wilderness.”
(The critic mentioned here is Mary Kinzie, whose essay “The Rhapsodic Fallacy” I addressed in Sulfur #13)
I have probably spent as much time in my writing life translating as working on poems, and of the dozen or so poets I have translated or cotranslated, I have spent more time on Vallejo (especially), Césaire, and Artaud, than all the rest. While this is not the place to address their work at large, because I built an entire anthology on my translations of their poetry (I will get to Rimbaud in a moment), it makes sense to say a bit more about why I feel they, along with Vladimir Holan, are such important writers.
All four have, from differing perspectives, given differing existential situations, grasped a significant portion of the abyss and met it with assimilative imagination. While they are certainly of our time—poverty-stricken Vallejo confronting his dying in 1937 Paris, young Césaire summoning courage to take on the Martinican condition, Artaud emerging from nine years of asylum incarceration, Holan erased by the Czech state and hermetically sealed in a house on a tiny island in the center of Prague—they also seem somewhat out of our time, their voices strengthened by a connection to a past when men were bound by necessity in a weighted, hopeless present, constantly faced with a fate that was not the annihilation of fate itself, but a fate that nailed one to something. Wallace Stevens evokes its size in the phrase “the stale grandeur of annihilation.”
So by presenting the four together in a 200 page selection of key works, I hoped to bring forth the configuration I mentioned above. All have a strong affiliation with the theories of Gabriel-Désire Laverdant, “a Fourierist,” according to Donald Kuspit, “who was virtually the first thinker to speak of radical art as ‘avant-garde.’” For Laverdant, the artist (or writer) “must lay bare with a brutal brush all the brutalities, all the filth, which are at the base of society.” These four poets, without softening this central idea of the avant-garde, anticipate the non-referential, highly abstract poetries that have achieved avant-garde status in the 1970s and 1980s. Because they do so as a trenchant response to their existential situations, their poetry is ideological and personal, and never, like too many of current esthetic avant-garde gestures, yields to programmatic procedures.
As a kind of epigram to my “four horsemen,” I offered a new translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” which still seems to me to be a signal gesture toward a trust in the coherence of the unconscious, a poem that swings between Genesis and Apocalypse. It is the first modern recognition of the extent to which the poem that goes for everything is bound to fail. Implicit in this recognition is the size of loss involved in all genuine exploration.
Four years after Conductors of the Pit was published, Paragon House went out of business and the anthology disappeared.
In 2002, at the AWP Conference in New Orleans, I got into a conversation with Richard Nash at the Soft Skull Press table. I told Richard about the demise of the Paragon House Conductors of the Pit and, on the spot, he proposed that Soft Skull do a new edition of the book.
By this time, however, Wesleyan University Press had brought out Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, which was the Césaire entry in the earlier anthology. In Vallejo’s case, I had decided to translate all of his early poetry so as to be able to end up with a Complete Poetry (which was published by University of California Press in 2007), and had already begun once more to revise the versions of Human Poems that had appeared in the 1988 Conductors. The Artaud material from Conductors had been revised and had appeared in the 1995 Exact Change edition of Watchfiends & Rack Screams. Clearly a new edition of the book would require some serious modifications.
I revised 13 of my 1962 translations of poems in Pablo Neruda’s first two Residencias en la tierra, and added, as an appendix, the essay “Revisiting Neruda’s Residencias.” I also put in two José Hierro translations that I did in Kyoto in 1963 when I was spending evenings discussing translation with Cid Corman in the Muse coffee shop. Corman taught rigorous respect for the original text, including line breaks (when possible) and the necessity of researching difficult and rare words. He brought across to me an image of the translator as a translator-scholar, one who role was to guard, in the act of translating, the integrity of the original and to trust that it knew what it was doing (and thus did not need to be “corrected” by the translator).
I also put in 10 translations of poems by Bernard Bador, along with some versions of Hungarian poems by Miklós Radnóti, Ferenc Juhász, and Géza Szöcs, that I had translated with Gyula Kodolanyi while my wife Caryl and I were in Hungary on a Soros Foundation travel grant in 1986. In the case of Artaud, I included 7 translations done after the work in Watchfiends was completed. I reprinted Holan’s “Night with Hamlet.”
There remained the question as to what to include by Vallejo and Césaire. I put in several Vallejo prose poems that I had previously not translated. For Césaire I added 3 previously untranslated poems. At the time, I thought that the new translations of such poems by the last two poets simply added to the amount of their work available in English, but after Conductors was published, I realized I had made a mistake. Readers encountering these poets for the first time in the anthology were only being offered a tiny selection of minor works. And I also soon realized that I should have given the new anthology a different title. Soft Skull had a hard time selling it because, they claimed, readers thought it was just a new edition of the 1988 Conductors.
My fourth anthology is a 700 page book based on Sulfur magazine (1981-2000) that Wesleyan University Press will publish in 2014. The word “sulfur” evokes the sulphur, a butterfly with black-bordered orange and yellow wings. On one level, the magazine was an evolution of Caterpillar; on another, the word denotes alchemical initiational combustion and excited or enflamed language. Sulfur’s 46 issues included more than 11,000 pages of material, with around 800 contributors, some 200 of which were foreign writers and artists. Unlike Caterpillar which had a masthead consisting of me as Editor, Robert Kelly as Contributing Editor and Caryl Eshleman as Managing Editor, Sulfur ended up with a 16 person masthead, including, besides Caryl and myself, Contributing Editors Eliot Weinberger, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Michael Palmer. Sulfur, then, is a considerable amplification of what Caterpillar achieved with such central focuses as translations, archival materials, contemporary American poetry, commentary (book reviews, letters, and notes) and resource materials: if poetry is the woof of a literary journal, non-poetic source materials might be the warp. The important idea here is that vital poetry is always dependent upon materials outside of its own discipline for the renewal and deepening of content, of extending what might be called “the cleared ground of the art.” In Sulfur’s case such material included art, art criticism, archetypal psychology, archeology, and politics.
If editing A Caterpillar Anthology was difficult, editing A Sulfur Anthology was a nightmare. Given my 700 page limitation set by Wesleyan, I could use only a little more than 6% of the contents of the 46 issues. Thus there was no way that I could represent the variety and density of the magazine without eliminating many of what I considered the most important contributions. So I began by completely eliminating artwork and art commentary (with two exceptions: I included a brief selection of Ana Mendieta’s statements and notes, as well as B. Ruby Rich’s run-down on Carl Andre’s trial concerning Ana’s death because we ran a 60 page tribute to Ana Mendieta in #22; I also included Allen S. Weiss’s most significant contribution on the doll-maker Michel Nedjar because Allen was a Sulfur Correspondent and I wanted everyone on the masthead to have some presence in the anthology). I also eliminated book reviews and letters.
This left me with our remaining focuses to draw upon. Over a period of several years I drew up at least a dozen Tables of Contents, realizing, as I revised and revised, that several other potential Sulfur Anthologies would come close to or even equal my final T of C, with 95 contributors. We were especially proud of the magazine’s cover art which almost always was in color but adding a color folio inside of the anthology would have been too expensive. I invited Irving Petlin, who provided Sulfur with artwork for 3 of our covers (more than any other artist) to offer us cover art for the anthology.
None of my four anthologies have involved open-ended selecting as, say, editing an anthology of contemporary American poetry would involve. In the case of each of my anthologies, I was either drawing upon material that I have already edited, as in the case of Caterpillar and Sulfur, or bringing together selections from poetry that I had translated or cotranslated. Compared to what Paul Hoover faced in editing the second edition of Postmodern American Poetry my anthology editing has been relatively simple.