CH:Opening my copy of Innovative Women Poets, I’m struck all over again by how easy we thought the project—collecting interviews with contemporary women poets that we ourselves had already done, or conducting new interviews if necessary, and assembling the interviews with a selection of poems—would be.
EF:We were at a conference together. We stood in the hallway between sessions—where so much scholarly work gets hatched!—and I asked you about doing an interview collection. I had released a critical book, and I wanted to do an editorial project, but not a collection of essays and not a “straight” anthology. We both valued the genre of the interview and thought it was under-represented in poetry criticism and in anthologies. We liked the way that an interview allows access to the “person,” quite distinct from an editorial headnote or even a poetics statement. We were both excited. We looked at each other—how long could it take, anyway? Since we had so many interviews completed, all we had to do was to select poems and write an introduction. We figured six months. Three years later, we were still copy-editing.
CH:We did agree at the start about the approach—that we wanted to offer a “different kind of anthology,” one that included every poet speaking about her poetic praxis and poetry “in her own words” (the working title almost up to page proofs); that we wanted to create a useful anthology that might see some course adoption; and that we wanted to enlarge the conversation about innovative poetics, placing poets from a range of experimental traditions in juxtapositional dialogue. All that I think we explain in our introduction. What we found was that, as we made decisions about maybe some unexpected inclusions, we produced unforeseen exclusions of significant experimental poets because of the practical issues of cost and space. I would do it differently if we were starting now. I’d be at pains to include all the poets I thought should be included.
EF:We even talked about doing a second volume, since there was easily twice the number of poets we wanted to include!
I also remember how strongly both of us wanted something we could teach from. Classroom use remains a key function of the anthology—that and cultivating new readers for a given group of poets. In the classroom, we were tired of using anthologies along with xeroxes of interviews culled from periodicals. But more than that, we wanted something that gave a fuller context to a range of women’s poetries than what was currently out there in a single volume, even though there were wonderful collections that had been done. For us, the interview was the key. Why rely solely on the institutionalizing mechanism of headnotes when the genre of the literary interview had provided so much useful knowledge and so much lively exchange? We wanted that extended, informal conversation that can take place only during in-person conversation, and we wanted to couple that liveliness with substantial selections of poetry by each writer—in dialogue with the dialogues.
On the theoretical and political level, I remember our primary concern was what we thought of as aesthetic diversity. Why was it that the feminist poetics of Alicia Ostriker was almost never placed in dialogue with the feminist poetics of her poet-critic contemporary Rachel Blau DuPlessis, or DuPlessis with the activist feminism of Sonia Sanchez? Even though the ground-breaking notion of “cross-cultural poetics” was out there, we didn’t see much cross-aesthetic poetics in editorial ventures. What might happen if we brought many strands of influence, many kinds of poetics, together? Hence the term “innovative”: we did not want to privilege one movement or mode. We wanted to look for cultural intervention.
Then there was our conscious decision that this book would feature poets who had, we thought, not gotten their due, so that this would be our own small intervention into canon formation. We weren’t interested in featuring emerging or young (or both) poets in an anthology—a formula along the lines of “20 under 20,” which I find problematic both for its fetishization of the new and for its ageism.
CH:Wrestling with the terminology and matters of inclusion/exclusion were issues we expected to negotiate. Confronting the fragility of life, on the other hand, was not anything we anticipated facing at that time. Two of the poets we chose to interview died before the book was published (Gloria Anzaldúa, who died before an earlier interview could be updated; and Barbara Guest, who died in the year after our interview). I had arranged to conduct a fresh interview of Alice Fulton, but it was scheduled at a time that was so personally tumultuous that I never got the chance. Instead, in the middle of moving from Pennsylvania to Arizona (between doctors and homes in what can only be described as a completely liminal place), I wound up in the hospital with a severely infected gall bladder needing immediate surgery. I literally had no place where I could convalesce except at my elderly parents’ home back in New York!
EF:I am still traumatized by that period in my own life. When we started work, I thought I had lots of time. Then my mother became seriously ill. What did it mean to try to continue a project of this scope and complexity—we had no idea how complex it would become—when much of my time was spent responding to emergencies, in and out of hospitals, negotiating the U.S. health care system? Paradoxically, it gave me energy. I started to see recurring themes in the poetry and in the interviews that I hadn’t noticed before. There were so many stories about illness, (dis)ability, and embodiment that were voiced in such subtle and complex ways in both the poetic texts and the interviews (Anzaldúa, Berssenbrugge, Fraser, Guest, Howe, Notley). This became another discovery in the process.
One of the now-posthumous inclusions—all of which break my heart—is Leslie Scalapino. I miss her greatly. I believe she is one of our most under-acknowledged poetic voices. To have been allowed to include some of her photo-texts—to receive the original postcards as a loan directly from Leslie to do high-quality reproductions in the book—that gave me real joy.
CH:I celebrate as well that Scalapino made the book launch in New York, giving a brilliant reading, although I remember her mentioning on the way to dinner that evening her chronic and disabling back pain. She had such grit!
EF:Another unforgettable experience was going out to the Bay Area to interview Kathleen Fraser and Barbara Guest. I will never forget that extraordinary afternoon in Guest’s house, simply chatting with them both, and laughing a great deal. This was the first interview Guest had given in about ten years, and it was her last. That was a great privilege.
CH:The afternoon had that luminous September California light. Remember how Guest was speaking of a poem she had written long ago in her house on Long Island, when she was still living in New York, and she suddenly began telling us how her grandfather had visited and helped her to complete the poem on which she had been working. We must have looked confused, as Fraser leaned over and said quietly, “She’s speaking of the ghost of her grandfather.” Guest was so spare of her words at that point, but she was giving us invaluable information about the contextualization of her poetic praxis at that time or in that particular place.
EF:One intervention that remains sadly unrealized is in the presentation of Anzaldúa’s work. We learned from AnaLouise Keating that Anzaldúa planned to release a new edition of Borderlands without the italics for the Spanish-language parts of the poems. Anzaldúa died suddenly and still quite young—and Keating has not been able to demonstrate what she knew to be Anzaldúa’s intention for further editions of her work. As a result, we could rely only on the existing edition in our permissions and were forced to reproduce the poems with the italics (a device that Anzaldúa had come to think of as “othering” the Spanish and giving primacy to the English). We had hoped that this anthology could be the first appearance of these poems in a revised, even more radical form.
CH:No, we exhausted all possible avenues in trying to make that happen. We were so close, but the Estate blues baffled us!
EF:I still groan inwardly thinking about that process. Both permissions and layout are so fraught for poetry—and so expensive—that doing an anthology of already-published work requires not just huge amounts of time but also a lot of money. Among other things, we learned yet again that the copyright system in the U.S. is broken.
CH:What I would add, though, now that Jayne Cortez has also, and too soon, died, is that I am so thankful that we listened to Harryette Mullen and included Cortez, a poet whose work I did not know well and had never myself taught. As Mullen summarized the issues at stake: “There is Jayne Cortez, who also has connections to surrealism, but is seen as being really engaged with a black political consciousness in a way that moves her work in another direction. Those are some issues that we have had to think about now that we have an established canon with the Norton Anthology [of African-American Literature].”1
There is now such a wealth of great anthologies that I’m astonished to remember how open the field felt to us at the beginning of the 21st-century, when we started our work, that we imagined it possible for a new anthology of women’s poetry to have real, or at the least potential impact in canon reformation. We are endlessly grateful to Iowa for giving us a free rein to reconceptualize the anthological approach to assembling poetry.
Our reviews were good, some of them extremely enthusiastic about our “fresh” approach, but there weren’t many reviews at all. My first reaction was a very brief elation, because it is a gorgeously published book, but aside from dreaming of a second edition in which we could correct all the errors we missed—and I’m not sure we’ve ever actually talked of this—I never had a sense of accomplishing anything close to what we hoped dialogically to achieve.
EF:I know. I still feel disappointed when I think about the hopes we had. I am so proud of this book—but now, ten years after we first hatched our plan, I have to confess that I would not do another anthology. The pitfalls are legion. And the work always exceeds the time estimates. Still, the great joy of it was working together. I think we taught one another a lot about the poets and the collaborative process itself. We had such a rich period of correspondence, sharing of ideas—it was very intimate, even though it was almost all done by email. We missed one another’s company when we finished!
CH:And we still do! That is the real underlying story of co-editing, isn’t it? That it begins—and I’ve been so lucky—ends in deeper friendship and fellowship. We saw our brainstorm manifest, take shape, and we helped to see each other through such harrowing periods in our lives. And the work we did with the poets, interviewing as we could and corresponding, reading their poetry deeply as we made our selections, has stayed with us, hasn’t it? That changed us and changed how we taught the material later. In some sense, that is all we tried to do.