In the age of e-mail’s immediacy, we have all but lost the sense of what a letter is: half of an extended, extemporaneous conversation that tries to anticipate and respond to its other half, as well as reward rereading over the comparatively long lag time between missives. Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax’s Letters to Poets, an anthology of correspondence between fourteen pairs of poets, tries to reclaim the expansiveness and durability of snail mail. Inspired by the centennial of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the editors sought to create a personal dialogue around the poetics and politics of America at the beginning of a new century, when language and intimate communication have become more suspect than ever.
Firestone and Lomax paired up older poets with younger ones to engage in a yearlong correspondence. They tapped writers mostly from the experimental-poetry scenes in New York and San Francisco, the editors’ hometowns, and Denver, and those associated with institutions like the St. Mark’s Poetry Project (home to many New York School poets) and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado (its poetics department was founded by, among others, Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima). These geographic and aesthetic ties establish at once the book’s audience and its limitations—it will primarily be of interest to fans of the Beats and Language poetry and to poets concerned with issues of race, gender, and politics; readers and writers interested in more mainstream work may find themselves left out.
Yet there is much here for anyone eager to know how a poet thinks about his or her craft against the backdrop of family life, a teaching career, a life committed to art, and a national political climate that has been less than friendly to left-of-center lifestyles. When Wanda Coleman sarcastically advises Truong Tran to “stop wasting your time on poetry and write a simpering novel or fake self-help book,” we feel the extent to which most poets must write simply for a love of the form. Jill Magi tells Cecilia Vicuña, “I’m anxious about ‘getting a book published’ and yet that language about the publishing process feels passive and untrue,” and we sympathize with the seeming contradiction of career ambition without commercial prospects. When Firestone laments about a self-important and unprepared male teacher who visited her class, Eileen Myles’s response—“We know what men have to say . . . Yawn”—offers a rare and candid glimpse of a feminist thinker sharing her incisive opinion about gender inequality. Traci Gourdine and Quincy Troupe have an affirming back-and-forth about how jazz and other art forms overlap with poetry. Brenda Coultas and Victor Hernández Cruz, and Karen Weiser and Anne Waldman, discuss writing in English in a non-English-speaking country. Other compelling dialogues transpire between Anselm Berrigan and John Yau, Albert Flynn DeSilver and Paul Hoover.
The book is occasionally tedious, as anyone’s letters might be, and the fact that these correspondences were initiated for publication can make them feel forced, a quality that several of the poets comment on, along with their unease with the elder-novice relationship on which the project is predicated. And sometimes, the shoptalk gets too esoteric. But while there is no shortage of books on the ins and outs of contemporary poetics, this one offers something most don’t: evidence that a poet’s community fulfills a basic need—to speak and be heard.