Harold Bloom reads from Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman

We are proud to have published Corrupted into Song: The Complete Works of Alvin Feinman. Though his poetry is lyrically intense and philosophically ambitious, Feinman published sparsely and remained largely unknown when he died in 2008. This is the definitive edition of Feinman’s complete work, which includes fifty-seven previously published poems and thirty-nine unpublished poems discovered among his manuscripts. Harold Bloom, who wrote the foreword, said of his friend’s poetry, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Listen to Bloom read two of Feinman’s poems below to experience that sublimity for yourself in a PUP blog exclusive.

Alvin Feinman

Alvin Feinman

“November Sunday Morning” by Alvin Feinman:

“Relic” by Alvin Feinman:


Feinman

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Austin Smith

almanac smith jacketAustin Smith’s debut collection, Almanac, is a lyrical and narrative meditation on the loss of small family farms. Most of the poems are personal, set in the rural Midwest where Smith grew up. Though they are geographically specific, the greater themes such as death and perseverance are as universal as they are disquieting.

The collection is also a meditation on apprenticeship. Smith, the son of a poet, reflects on the responsibility of a young poet to mourn what is vanishing.

Listen to Austin Smith’s reading of his poem, “Coach Chance”.

austin smithAustin Smith was born in the rural Midwest. Most recently, he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. He has written a collection of poems entitled Almanac: Poems.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Anthony Carelli

carelli jacket carnations Throughout April, Princeton University Press has enjoyed featuring audio readings from an array of poets. Today, Anthony Carelli presents “The Brooklyn Heavens”, a poem selected from his debut collection, Carnations. Throughout the book, Carelli injects new life into metaphors as old as writing itself. The poems themselves are his carnations, wilting even as they are being written and being renewed with new writing and voice. Carelli transforms the most ordinary of images, such as a walk home from work or a game of Frisbee in a winter park.

An exclusive reading from Carnations:

Anthony Carelli’s poems have appeared in various magazines including The New Yorker, Columbia, and Commonweal, and on various websites including theparisreview.org, AGNI online, and Memorious. His first book, Carnations (Princeton University Press, 2011) was a finalist for the 2011 Levis Reading Prize. Recipient of a Hodder fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at New York University.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

The Ruined Elegance jacketTo celebrate National Poetry Month, Princeton University Press has been proud to present audio readings from our poets throughout the month of April.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain embraces influences from America, France, and Asia throughout her latest collection of poetry, The Ruined Elegance. The poetry is inspired by an array of sources, from concentration camps to sketches, photographs to musical pieces. With lyrical language and imagery, Sze-Lorrain’s work offers hope and elegance to offset devastation and ruin.

Below, listen to Sze-Lorrain read “Transparent” from The Ruined Elegance. 

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of two previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola and Water the Moon, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris. Her most recent book is The Ruined Elegance: Poems.

 

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Poem in Your Pocket Day

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoNational Poetry Month is in full swing, and April 21st is designated  Poem in Your Pocket Day. Celebrated across the country, the “pocket poem” is a simple reminder of how powerful and overlooked poetry can be. Spread poetry in classrooms, libraries, offices, or wherever you happen to be by printing out either an old personal favorite or a poem you’ve newly discovered. You can share your choice on Twitter using the popular hashtag #pocketpoem.

Although Poem in Your Pocket Day was founded by the office of the mayor in New York City in 2002, it quickly gained national momentum. You can find more information about the event at poets.org, which features news, updates, and additional programs that are taking place throughout April.

To promote and celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day, Princeton University Press is pleased to present a selection of six printable PUP poem cards you can take with you throughout your day.

Jollimore poetry card On Birdsong

Troy Jollimore is the author of two previous collections of poetry, At Lake Scugog (Princeton) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.

Feinman poetry card The Way to Remember Her

Alvin Feinman (1929-2008) taught literature at Bennington College from 1969 to 1994. He was the author of Preambles and Other Poems and an expanded edition of that work, Poems (Princeton). He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago, and Yale University.

Greenbaum poetry card The Two Yvonnes

Jessica Greenbaum’s second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She teaches inside and outside academia, and as a social worker she designs workshops for nonconventional communities. She received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, is the poetry editor for upstreet, and lives in Brooklyn.

poetry_cards_Carelli

Anthony Carelli’s poems have appeared in various magazines including The New Yorker, Columbia, and Commonweal, and on various websites including theparisreview.org, AGNI online, and Memorious. His first book, Carnations (Princeton University Press, 2011) was a finalist for the 2011 Levis Reading Prize. Recipient of a Hodder fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at New York University.

Whitehead poetry card A Glossary of Chickens

Gary J. Whitehead’s third collection of poems, A Glossary of Chickens, was published by Princeton University Press in 2013. His previous books include Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps and The Velocity of Dust. He has also authored three chapbooks of poetry, two of which were winners of national competitions. His writing awards include, among others, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship at Iowa State University, and the PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency Award. His poems have appeared widely, most notably in The New Yorker.
Smith poetry card The Key in the Stone
Austin Smith has published four poetry collections: In the Silence of the Migrated Birds; Wheat and Distance; Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down; and Almanac, which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Austin’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Yale Review, and Sewanee Review, amongst others. He was the recipient of the 2015 Narrative Prize for his short story, “The Halverson Brothers.”
poetry_cards_Sze-Lorrain (1)
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of three previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola, Water the Moon, and The Ruined Elegance, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Gary Whitehead

j9947Throughout this April, Princeton University Press is honoring National Poetry Month with a variety of special and exclusive audio readings. Today we’re proud to feature poet, high school teacher, and crossword constructor Gary Whitehead. Whitehead’s subjects are diverse, ranging from morality to illness, incorporating imagery from the Civil War to Noah as an old man. His work has a striking musical quality. Whitehead’s most recent collection is A Glossary of Chickens: Poems.

Listen to the poet read “A Glossary of Chickens” below.

Gary J. Whitehead is a poet, teacher, and crossword constructor. His third collection of poems, A Glossary of Chickens, was published by Princeton University Press in 2013. His previous books include Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps and The Velocity of Dust. He has also authored three chapbooks of poetry, two of which were winners of national competitions. His writing awards include, among others, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship at Iowa State University, and the PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency Award. He has also been awarded the Princeton University Distinguished Secondary School Teaching Award. His poems have appeared widely, most notably in The New Yorker. He lives in the Hudson Valley of New York and teaches English and creative writing at Tenafly High School in New Jersey.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading from Jessica Greenbaum

the two yvonnes greenbaum jacketTo celebrate National Poetry Month, Princeton University Press will be featuring weekly audio readings from some of our most popular poets. Today Jessica Greenbaum, author of The Two Yvonnes, reads from her collection. Moving from 1960s Long Island, to 1980s Houston, to today’s Brooklyn, the poems range in subject from the pages of the Talmud, to a sick daughter, to a squirrel trapped in a kitchen. As always, Greenbaum’s poetry displays a keen discussion of human vulnerability.

Greenbaum is essential reading, particularly throughout a month dedicated to the wider appreciation of poetry, because of her accessibility. Written in “plain American that cats and dogs can read,” as Marianne Moore once put it, the book asks: how does life present itself to us, and how do we create value from our delights and losses? Listen to Greenbaum’s passionate reading of The Two Yvonnes.

 

jessica greenbaumJessica Greenbaum is the author of The Two Yvonnes, one of Library Journal’s Best Books in Poetry for 2012.

 

For the love of books

The Quotable Kierkegaard jacketFeynmanCalaprice_QuotableEinstein_pb_cvrthoraeu smalljefferson

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than with a heartfelt declaration of our love of books? We offer up these quotes from our Quotable’s, as well as a special giveaway!

PUP Books

The Quotable Kierkegaard

“It is the most interesting time, the period of falling in love, where after the first touch of a wand’s sweeping sensation, from each encounter, every glance…one brings something home, just like a bird busily fetching one stick after the other to her nest, yet always feels overwhelmed by the great wealth.”

“What is it, namely, that connect the temporal and eternity, what else but love, which for that very reason is before everything and remains after everything is gone.”

The Quotable Feynman

“It’s necessary to fall in love with a theory, and like falling in love with a woman, it’s only possible if one does not completely understand her.”

The Quotable Thoreau

“How insufficient is all wisdom without love.”

“It is strange that men will talk of miracles, revelation, inspiration, and the like, as things past, while love remains.”

“What is the singing of birds, or any natural sound, compared with the voice of one we love?”

The Ultimate Quotable Einstein

“Love brings much happiness, much more so than pining for someone brings pain.”

The Quotable Jefferson

“If I love you more, it is because you deserve more.”

“We think last of those we love most.”

VB1

In Love’s Vision, Troy Jollimore puts forth a new way of thinking about love. For the most romantic holiday all year, we’re giving away three copies starting February 12. The entry period ends February 20. As you pay special attention to your loved ones let Troy Jollimore’s vision of love give you food for thought.

Children’s Literature for Grownups #ReadUp

Have you ever found yourself returning to a book considered “children’s literature?” There’s just something about our favorite children’s books that can draw us in. What’s with the magnetism? Children’s books are a part of our literary foundation, and some of the best ones hold a special place in our hearts. Or is it something more?

k10538Remember reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? First published in 1865, PUP is publishing a new edition in honor of the 150th anniversary, illustrated by none other than the famous surrealist, Salvador Dalí.

The whimsical world of Wonderland holds a special charm for both children and adults. You can bet more adults will be purchasing this item for themselves than for their children, both for the sense of nostalgia and for the promise of new things that children’s books inevitably hold. This promise is much more prominent in children’s books than it is in adult books because children’s books are written differently. They are written with the idea that they will likely be revisited, often including multiple layers and facets. Just ask Neil Gaiman. In a recent article, Gaiman notes that “When I’m writing for kids, I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults.”

Re-reading a children’s book as an adult brings the gift of new perspective. Would you read A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit the same way now as you did when you were 10? We might find and identify common themes, or develop sympathies for characters we formerly loved to hate. When we revisit these stories later in life, we read them with a new lens, one altered by experience and time, often picking up on new and interesting tidbits that we never knew existed. This is particularly true of fairy tales. If these Disney-esque stories are meant for children, why do we, as adults, enjoy them so much? The answer probably lies in their adult origins. One of PUP’s most popular recent books is The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. The first edition. Take note.k10300

AndreaDezso_BrothersGrimm3As David Barnett states in The Guardian in a piece titled, Adult content warning: beware fairy stories, “Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm . . . did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who assembled their tales as part of a life’s work. . . . And they were surprised when the adults who bought their collections of fairy tales to read to their children began to complain about the adult nature of the content.”

These stories were not polished and sanitized until much later. Originally, they were filled with violence and other adult content. (As evidenced by the picture on the above left, by Andrea Dezsö, featured in PUP’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm). This image is from a tale entitled Herr Fix-It-Up. Herr Fix-It-Up must complete tasks denoted by a lord and king in order to win the lord his princess bride. One of the tasks is to kill a unicorn that’s been “causing a great deal of damage.” By today’s standards, beheading of unicorns is hardly the stuff of children’s tales, but these tales are more sociological accounts than children’s stories, reflecting the sensibilities of the time period and place in which they were written.

UntitledOthk10312er “children’s” books expand on this very aspect of fairy tales, including The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison takes many of the classic tales of our childhood including Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid and re-imagines them for an older audience.

As a fairly new member of the press, it never occurred to me that some titles on our list would include some of my old favorites. What children’s books do you love more as an adult?

 

You can take a tour of the gorgeous interior of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here:

 

 

Feature image by Steve Czajka – https://www.flickr.com/photos/steveczajka/11392783794

Frontispiece designed by Gertrude Hermes

 

An interview with poet Troy Jollimore on “Syllabus of Errors”

Syllabus of Errors coverAfter being praised as “a new and exciting voice in American poetry,” by the New York Times for the publication of his first collection of poems, (a National Book Critics Circle Award winner), and receiving critical acclaim for his second compilation, Troy Jollimore returns to the world of contemporary poetry with his third collection, Syllabus of Errors. In his new book, Jollimore, a professor of philosophy, explores the notion of error in our daily lives. In an exclusive interview with PUP, Jollimore discusses the themes present in his poems, the significance of misunderstandings, and the relationship between philosophy and poetry.

Your new poetry collection is called Syllabus of Errors. Where does that title come from?

TJ: That evocative phrase names a Catholic church document that purports to list a number of popular and hazardous heresies, in order to help believers avoid them. Of course my poems don’t have any ambition at all, as far as I can see, to help people avoid errors, unless it’s the error of not paying enough attention to language or to beauty. But my own poems, especially the ones I like best, often start with an error: misunderstanding something, mis-hearing something, finding out that something you’ve believed for a long time is false. And rather than thinking of the process of revision as one of purging or eliminating the errors, these days I think of it more as exploring errors, finding out what’s interesting about them, what kind of power they have. Poems don’t have to be correct, they don’t have to be true; there’s great freedom in that. Years ago, when people would ask me to sign copies of my first book, I would often write, “For ___, this book of lies and bad advice.” That seemed appropriate, and it still does.

In your work as a philosopher, on the other hand, you must be more concerned with avoiding errors.

TJ: Yes, my day job is as a professional philosopher, and yes, in some sense what you say must be true. Although in philosophy, too, the errors themselves can be interesting; all the great philosophers—Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, you name it—were wrong about so much. Each of them offered a picture of the cosmos (more than one picture, in the case of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein) that was productive and profound, and that made possible certain insights that were not available before, but was also deeply wrong in some way.

Is there a tension between doing philosophy and writing poetry? Do they inform each other? Do you have to work hard to keep them separate?

TJ: My thinking on this continues to change. I always think of Randall Jarrell’s comment that “Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem.”

I resist this, of course, because it seems to me that any decent piece of philosophy will tell us something new and significant about the world, and so can’t help but be interesting. But let’s suppose that Jarrell meant something else, that the poet, unlike the philosopher, is allowed and even required to do anything to make a poem work—to make it interesting, to make it a good read. You can include falsehoods, questionable statements, stuff you don’t know, stuff that just sounds good, stuff you just make up. Whatever works. Just as the poet gets to twist and violate the rules of grammar and syntax, to stuff her poem full of non sequiturs and illogical swerves, etc.—it’s all part of the same package, the package that gets called ‘poetic license,’ I suppose.

Whereas when doing philosophy, while you may end up saying something interesting, something that gives pleasure or delight, something that is memorable or moving, you aren’t allowed to aim at being interesting, delightful, moving, etc. in the same way; you have to aim at understanding, at achieving an accurate and insightful picture of things, and you are bound by the rules and practices that govern that sort of inquiry. And then, once that is done, being interesting—or giving delight, or moving the reader, or what have you—is something that can happen, but only as, in essence, a kind of side-effect.

On that reading, Jarrell was saying something quite interesting. I’m still not entirely sure I think it’s true. I still meet idea that it is legitimate to do anything that improves the quality of a poem, the quality of the experience of reading the poem, with some resistance. I’m tempted to say that any truly valuable poem must to be true to the world, to get the world right, in some significant sense. That certainly seems true of many of the poems that I value most, or that have moved me most profoundly; and if it’s generally true then it perhaps suggests that truth, properly understood, is not only a fundamental goal in philosophy, but in poetry as well. But of course a lot is concealed, and needs to be excavated and analyzed, in that phrase “properly understood.” And of course there are poems that don’t seem to fit this model very well, for instance relatively abstract poems that don’t seem to be representational in nature and so can’t be assessed in any straightforward way as true or false, accurate or inaccurate, and so forth.

The poems in Syllabus of Errors seem to keep coming back to the same set of themes and images: birds and birdsong, death, beauty, the movies.

TJ: Authors say this a lot, but it turns out it’s true: you find out what a book is about by writing it. You can set out to write a poem, or an entire book, on a given set of themes, but the poems have ideas of their own: they will communicate with you by, among other things, refusing to work—refusing to be written—when you’re going in the wrong direction, focusing on the wrong themes, trying to write the poem that, at this moment, is not yours to write. I write the poems I can, and I don’t generally feel that I have much control over it—and in those rare moments when I do feel in control, I know I’m in trouble!

I’m always writing about beauty in one way or another, and death when I can manage it. As for the movies—they feel very alive to me, as an art form; despite the corrupting influence of money, the fact that movies, unlike poetry, can reasonably aspire to a mass audience, America has somehow produced an art form in which incredible talents—Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufmann, David Lynch, Joel and Ethan Coen —can produce powerful, astonishing, at times visionary works. (And of course those are only living American directors. The most “poetic” directors are people who have tended to work in places far away from the cultural codes and influence of Hollywood: Andrei Tarkovsky, Chris Marker, Wong Kar-wai…)

Yet at the same time the movies feel a bit like an endangered species; audiences are shrinking, the movie palaces of the golden age have all disappeared, film has been replaced by digital photography and projection, and fewer and fewer people care about seeing movies as they are meant to be seen—on a huge screen, in a theater, surrounded by other people. The movies used to be the place where we came together with our fellow citizens to share experiences, the place where you noticed that when you laughed, when you gasped, when your pulse raced, the same thing happened to the person in the chair next to yours. Where do we come together now? Online, I guess. And online isn’t a place. It’s nowhere. It doesn’t exist. If we’re only meeting in cyberspace, which is more and more the case, then we just aren’t meeting at all.

In a poem like “Vertigo,” the longest poem in the book, beauty, the movies, and death come together: the poem is an elegy for a lost friend, and tries to approach this loss, it seems, by engaging with Hitchcock’s film.

TJ: Right. There are things that cannot be approached directly. So maybe this is a strategy of avoidance or of indirection, or a way of making the unsayable sayable. Poetry, like the movies, like any art form, can be a lens through which to view something, like death (as if there’s anything that’s like death other than death itself) that can’t be comprehended in itself, that is too staggering and overwhelming, so that any statement we try to make about it ends up seeming like a falsification, an evasion. So art is like the camera obscura you use to look at a solar eclipse, which ends up being a way of really seeing; not a diminished way of seeing, or even ‘the only way of seeing that we have’—as if there could be something better—but true sight, true perception, a direct contact that only seems to be indirect. What does ‘direct’ mean, anyway, in the context of perception and understanding? That’s a philosophical question, but it’s one that poetry continually grapples with; one that poetry, being the art form it is, couldn’t avoid even if it wanted to.

Troy Jollimore is the author of two previous collections of poetry, At Lake Scugog (Princeton) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.

An interview with poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain on “The Ruined Elegance”

Sze-Lorrain, poet

© Dominique Nabokov, 2015, Paris

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In her new collection—an intercultural journey that traces lives, encounters, exiles, and memories from France, America, and Asia—she offers a nuanced yet dynamic vision of humanity marked by perils, surprises, and transcendence. Recently she took the time to answer some questions about The Ruined Elegance.

Can you speak a little about your writing process or how these poems came about?

FS: Almost every poem in this collection behaved like a beast. I lost whenever I tried to fight it, until I realized how far I missed the mark. “To question the options of elegy, I’ve probably chosen the wrong epic.” [from the poem “Back from the Aegean Sea”] Several verses and their poetic narratives were deviating at the start, in part because I had tried to be clever about a “lyric/anti-lyric.” I wanted silence and music. What better paradox could there be?

It did feel like a crisis when I could only pick these poems up from their “ruins.” I censored words and images even before saying them out loud or putting them down on the page. Part of my illusion had to do with my folly of “writing to tame vulnerability and speechlessness” on the page. While finding ways to cope, I felt drawn to reading poems that were gentle yet could sustain a certain emotional rawness and moral jolt. To recenter myself, I walked — from one arrondissement to another.

The Ruined Elegance jacketWhat colors come to mind when you revisit the poems in The Ruined Elegance?

FS: Violet, vermillion, and shades of gray-green. No vintage “black and white.”

Why not?

FS: Because I hope to have the poems operate beyond witnessing, documenting or commenting about their socio-historical sources, even if some of the thematic concerns relate to specific political events — these poems believe in history, but they don’t live in the past.

Why poetry?  What would you like to be if you weren’t a poet, literary translator, or zheng harpist?

FS: I didn’t plan to “be a poet.”  Poems and Bach bring me as much joy as doubt, though sometimes not as much company as would horses and trees.

Why poetry — because it can still resist greed and social constructs.  Were I not a poet or musician, I would like to play bridge professionally or practice herbology and phytotherapy.

What are some of your poetic influences?

FS: Dickinson, Lowell, Rimbaud, Milosz, Lorca, Białoszewski, Montale… as well as translations of Buddhist scriptures and Latin texts.

 Please offer some reading recommendations for our readers.

FS: Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: it is my perennial “drug” or ritual.

I also recommend C.G. Jung’s The Red Book, Aesop’s Fables, photography catalogues of Tina Modotti, Susan Stewart’s On Longing, Pico Iyer’s The Open Road, Mark Strand’s Collected Poems, Simone de Beauvoir’s Une mort très douce [A Very Easy Death], and photographs of the Baudelairian Paris by Eugène Atget.

An excerpt from The Ruined Elegance. Note, the first line is after the last verse of her translation “Mirror,” by contemporary Chinese poet Zhang Zao, forthcoming from Zephyr Press:

Poem excerpt
Chapter one is available here.

An interview with Jesse Zuba, author of “The First Book”

Literary debuts both launch and define careers, and have a unique impact on the literary marketplace. In The First Book, Jesse Zuba has written a cultural history and literary analysis of “first books”, focusing on poetic debuts, that will intrigue writers and publishers alike. Recently, Zuba spoke to PUP about his first book, The First Book:

The First Book jacket“First books” hold such a special place in the public imagination. How did you come up with the idea of writing about first books?

I was interested in how poets came to see themselves as poets, and be recognized as such by others, before they had anything more than their unpublished writing to show for their efforts, and at a cultural moment when poetry generally didn’t count for a whole lot. I tried to write a research paper about this in college. I remember checking out Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium and John Ashbery’s Some Trees from the library, and re-reading Gary Snyder’s Riprap. But I didn’t follow through. I was fascinated by Stevens’s “Earthy Anecdote,” but I didn’t have any idea what it meant, let alone how to link it to other debut poems.

Eventually I saw that my questions about vocation were exactly what poets usually brooded on as they began their careers. I also noticed the improbable amount of fuss made over debuts in reviews, essays, advertisements, and elsewhere, and I got curious. Four dozen annual first book prizes? For poetry? I liked that the topic gave me a chance to discuss a wide range of poets handling vocational anxieties in different ways, and also to talk about the first book as a complex artifact that is more central to the poetry scene than you might expect.

What does “The First Book” have to do with “Twentieth-Century Poetic Careers in America”?

The first book anticipates others to come. I couldn’t discuss it without placing it in the context of the poetic career. But what was that? Was the classic sequence of pastoral, georgic, and epic still relevant, or was it just a series of books? How did jobs, relationships, and receptions get factored in? And what about the oppositional bent of modern poetry, with its ambivalent relation to the very forms of success that conventional careers aim to achieve?

By focusing on the representation of career, I followed the lead of the poets themselves, who obsessively address questions of self-fashioning in their debuts. That they talk so much about it, both obliquely and sometimes quite explicitly, suits the occasion, since the poetic career – always precarious, and especially so in twentieth-century America – is bound to be radically uncertain at the outset, when it’s all still to do.

What were some of the challenges you faced as you worked on the book?

One challenge was the complexity of the career notion I just mentioned. Most of the criticism dealing with it comes out of Renaissance studies, which has only an indirect relevance to my project. I gradually found my way to books like Edward Said’s Beginnings, and sociological studies of art and professionalism, which helped me to find the handles on the issue. But in the early going, it was sometimes tough to work with a concept that was at once so hazy and yet so pervasive in literary criticism.

In a similar way, the idea of the first book itself proved more difficult to pin down than I expected. If Stevens’s Harmonium, published in 1923, was his first book, was the expanded 1931 edition of Harmonium his second book, or the definitive edition of his first? Was Observations Marianne Moore’s debut, or was Poems, which was published three years earlier by her friends, without her say-so? What about early publications whose authors later destroyed them, like Lyn Hejinian’s The Grreat Adventure, or omitted them from collected editions, like Robert Hayden’s Heart-Shape in the Dust? It was a while before I learned to look at examples like these as evidence of the interest poets and publishers have taken in debuts, which are often staged and re-staged in tellingly energetic ways.

In the book you list lots of debut titles that deal with beginning, from James Merrill’s First Poems and Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note to Eleni Sikelianos’s Earliest Worlds and Ken Chen’s Juvenilia. Is this part of the secret formula for getting published? Do poets write for prizes?

I don’t see much evidence of any formula, though there are some interesting similarities among first books, and I’m sure many poets have considered current trends and judges’ tastes in the hopes of increasing their odds. There are too many constantly-changing variables involved for a formula to be more than minimally effective, and the checklists you sometimes see in prize advertisements with qualities like “willingness to take risks” and “formal virtuosity” not only raise more questions than they answer, but are much more easily said than done: they might as well say “write like W. B. Yeats” or “write like Frank O’Hara.”

Only Chen’s book won a prize out of the titles you mentioned, and plenty of debuts are published and win prizes without drawing on the theme of beginning in their titles or elsewhere. I see the emphasis on beginning that pervades post-1945 poetic debuts as part of a complex response to the increasingly institutionalized environment in which poetry is often written, published, and read these days, not as a subtle advertisement of a poet’s promise, designed to win over editors.

What are you reading?

I just finished recording a reading of Emerson’s Nature for Librivox – a great volunteer organization that makes audio versions of public domain texts available online for free. At the moment I’m in the middle of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, A Bernadette Mayer Reader, and Gillian White’s Lyric Shame. I’m looking forward to James Richardson’s During and the newly translated early novels of Haruki Murakami. I’m always re-reading Philip Roth.

What’s next for you?

A new project dealing with what I think of as “the scandal of authorship” has roots in reading Roth. Why is the author seen as a bad guy in a novel like The Counterlife? How is it that fiction elicits such harsh judgments? What does it mean that writers sometimes take pains to forestall such judgments – by judging themselves guilty in advance, for example, or through sheer tact? I’m casting a fairly wide net for now: Roth, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Junot Diaz, Vladimir Nabokov. I’d like to explore tensions between social responsibility and the autonomy of the aesthetic in the post-1945 period, think some more about literary careers, and hopefully tell some good stories along the way.

Jesse Zuba is assistant professor of English at Delaware State University.

Read the introduction to The First Book here.