Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Sam O'Hana, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Michael Wiegers about his book What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, which is among the final five selections in the category of Poetry for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
The Body and its Detritus
In a project that has been over five years in the making, Michael Wiegers, editor in chief of Copper Canyon Press, discovered Mississippi-born poet Frank Stanford while working with the late CD Wright and was startled by what he found. Wiegers speaks about how he wanted to share the intimacy of that experience, giving people a better understanding of how Stanford worked as well as the time and situation in which he lived.
Sam O'Hana: Half of the work in this volume is previously unpublished. Where did you find your source material?
Michael Wiegers: About twenty years ago I started editing and working with the late CD Wright. At that time I knew nothing about Stanford, but while telling a friend about working with CD, they said, “Oh, wasn’t she connected to Frank Stanford?” I had little idea who he was, so they gave me a copy of Stanford’s book-length poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Later, over the course of working with CD, I would try to convince her that we should consider a retrospective of his work. She was initially a little hesitant, only owning half of his literary estate–the other half belonging to his second wife, Ginny. However, later, when we all first really agreed to do this, she took me to her office at Brown University and put me in front of her file cabinet, saying, “Go ahead and rummage through.” She then left for the day.
CD was already in the process of donating her Stanford archives to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale. She was also in contact with Ginny, and would later encourage her to do the same. So it started out with my going through all CD’s material, finding old notebooks, for example. When all the archives had been donated to the Beinecke, I started spending a number of days sorting through a quite substantial number of boxes. It involved a little sleuthing to figure out how the pieces fit together and which of the many drafts were the final ones. One of challenges was that he would intentionally repeat and borrow from himself, occasionally extracting from The Battlefield to produce separate poems.
SO: Did you have to make any difficult editorial decisions to produce a collection of this size?
MW: Absolutely. The hardest part of it was the uncollected, previously unpublished material because he had already fashioned to a degree a number of manuscripts in a working order at the time of his suicide. On one hand, I had to approach those books as if he had intended to publish them, and on the other hand, as an editor, I had to find those duplications and mistakes, trying to figure out which of those subtle changes made up the “final” version of a particular poem. I was trying to adhere to what I thought were his intentions for those later manuscripts, and at the same time I had to orchestrate the elements he seemed uncertain about.
Then, in terms of the The Battlefield, it’s such a massive book that I just wanted quotes that would get people a good feel for what that book is like. Clearly, in a book that’s already over 700 pages long, I can’t add an additional 400-page poem. So the excerpts allows the Battlefield to live on its own as a stand alone volume. The orchestration of What About This was part detective work but also regular editorial work, figuring out what were mistakes and what was intentional. There are some intentional repetitions included; I thought it would be interesting to see the variations that were made along the way. All this points to his writing style– compulsive and manic, he just wrote like crazy and much of it coming from the exact same source as something from several years previously. He would borrow or steal from himself to get the poem where he wanted it, which sometimes made it seem unfinished. But this was all part of it. The poem would be of the moment, it would be ‘living’.
SO: It seems that a key feature of some 20th century American poets is that their corpus ends unfinished.
MW: Right. With Stanford’s work, it’s hard to tell what is fact and what is myth. He claimed that The Battlefield and some of his other works were from a much, much longer book that he’d started writing at age nine. As I was going through the archives, I’d find a lot of references to a piece called St. Francis and the Wolf, and proposed collection of outtakes from that book that started in 1957. In certain ways he started out with this huge burst of energy and then went about refining that, gleaning from it and making something new. It was as if he worked in reverse. Whitman started with The Song of Myself and then it grew. Stanford purportedly started with a big burst of verbal energy and harvested from it and added to it.
SO: Does The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford feel characteristic to Copper Canyon Press or was it more unusual, newer territory for you as one of its editors?
MW: We’ve had a pretty distinguished history of gathering the life’s work of poets and bringing it to a brighter light. I’m thinking of Ruth Stone, June Jordan, or Hayden Carruth. These are people whose work we’ve successfully done big retrospectives for in order to get them more attention. In that way, it’s in keeping with Copper Canyon Press. Stanford himself is more of a wild child. Stylistically he’s different from those poets, though he’s very much in the tradition of a lot of the other poets that we publish.
Being an editor who publishes translations, what’s really interesting about his work is that he was also doing what he called ‘translations’. Clearly he didn’t speak any of these languages, but he was interested in bringing poetry across into American and even Ozark English. In a way that’s similar to WS Merwin, Stanford’s work was influenced by translation. You have to read Lorca, Artaud, Vallejo or Bertolucci alongside Stanford, but there’s still a sui generis quality to his work. It’s hard to place him, but if you dig deep, you’ll see connections with other poets we’ve worked with.
SO: One of comparisons that seemed possible was with Ed Dorn and Paul Blackburn.
MW: Well, like them, Stanford was not part of an established scene, was something of a maverick, for example. What I really loved was discovering his correspondence with Alan Dugan. They saw themselves as outsiders. There’s a desire with most American poets to see themselves as the outsider, but in a lot of ways that was really true of Stanford. He had no MFA, he left college without graduating, and was really just possessed with poetry.
Stanford was writing not just from the Ozarks, but from the river country of the South. He spent time in New Orleans and was the adoptive son of a civil engineer who built levees. Something like The Battlefield is made up of all different voices of the people who were around him and were very particular to that landscape. Again, you would not find people talking like they do in his poems in places like Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or San Francisco. He wanted to nail down that voice and give people like laborers and escaped convicts a voice, and I think that that’s all part of situating the poem in a place but also saying “here’s another America.” I think he was particularly interested in racial politics. I discovered that when he was at the University of Arkansas in the 60’s, he was leading protests against Apartheid in South Africa. That was informed by his experiences growing up. He was trying to bring forth the unfairness that affected African-Americans, as well as others, globally. It may be in one of the interviews where he was asked about the writing of The Battlefield, which recreates a his experience as a young boy living in African American Labor camps, and he was asked “What have you learned?” via that experience, and he responded, “I learned how shitty we treat black people.” I think that’s a huge influence in his work, the search for justice by bringing to life the voices of the disenfranchised. It’s an assessment of this country, of its racial politics, particularly in the sixties.
SO: Stanford has lines like ‘rabbit blood under fingernails’ and ‘I buried the afterbirth in sawdust’ What is it about Stanford that gives him access to such an unusual set of images?
MW: As a boy he was already interested in Surrealism, and he was also a bodily poet, being very conscious of his own physical presence. From what I’ve heard, he was very attractive and athletic person, too; there’s almost an erotic quality to his work. The body and its beauty–as well as its detritus–are a fascination to him. The mannerisms of politeness do not exist in his poetry. He’s unafraid to go into the muck.
SO: In his published works some of the content is raw, but vaguely polite. Then when you move to his unpublished work, the language is a lot cruder. Was there a more censorial editorial hand in his work in the 60’s and 70’s?
MW: I’m not sure if that’s the case because a large portion of his work was self-published. He was his own primary editor and while he had a few others along the way like Dugan, he was just learning to be a poet. He was probably learning to rely less on exaggeration, something which shows itself over time. Also, a few of the books that were previously published were done posthumously, and I’m certain that CD and Ginny probably wanted to not let any of the rawness take away from his abilities. So perhaps his posthumous works came under a sharper editorial pencil.
SO: This book is punctuated with quotes from Catholic writer and mystic Thomas Merton. Were these added by Stanford himself?
MW: Yes, he was influenced by Merton and that probably goes back to being a student at Subiaco, a Catholic academy. He probably modeled himself as a secular Merton in his engagement with other languages and translations. He was definitely attached and attracted to [Merton’s] work.
SO: Like Stanford and Copper Canyon, Merton is published by an independent press, New Directions.
MW: Yes. What should be appreciated about Stanford’s work is that this kid was living in rural Arkansas before the Internet. There are these letters to people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti in which he’s ordering books from City Lights, and to other poets asking them for recommendations. You have to wonder how he came to know about the work of someone like Bertolucci. I believe he was holed up in a library in Subiaco with a couple of priests guiding him in his reading. I love that he was able to get out into the rest of the world, even though it wasn’t until later in his life that he set off across the country, interviewing other poets. He just had a hunger or an attachment to poetry beyond his region.
SO: I wonder if a world without the Internet led him to learn more in a way, by having to go to the real source.
MW: It made him bold. He wanted to meet these people, so he reached out to them by writing them letters, particularly to Dugan, but also to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. He really cultivated the Dugan relationship and it was a very personal one that ended up being really influential to his writing. He did the same thing with Malcolm Cowley, for example. This started along with his first book Singing Knives which wasn’t readily available. Keep in mind that this was before Amazon, and those books were really crude in their production, and just passed around by people. That pre-Internet ability to reach out to elders and colleagues alike—that’s what kept his work alive. After he was gone there was an underground recognition, or mourning, of loss, because so many people had been touched by him.
SO: That’s about all we have time for. Is there anything you’d like to bring in at this point?
MW: The one thing that I’d love to add is that while both Ginny and CD Wright were really important to the creation of this book, for me this book is very much connected to my relationship to CD Wright as her editor, and I see so much of her own poetry as being influenced by Stanford. I think a lot of what she learned about poetry started with him and being a part of that same environment- Arkansas mid-60’s, early 70’s. Looking at this book, though, I know she would not want to be cast into the limelight or receive attention for being associated with it. For me, I see it very much as being her book, too. She was so influential in having it come together, along with Ginny, both of whom advocated for his work throughout his lifetime. I’m sorry that CD’s not here to celebrate. I actually got the news that the book was a NBCC award finalist just as I had come back to my hotel after her memorial. For me it's a bittersweet ending. She was such a guiding force for me and an encouragement behind this book. I’d love to be celebrating it with her right now.
For the past decade Michael Wiegers has worked in independent publishing as an editor, and is currently the Executive Editor of Copper Canyon Press. His reviews and criticism have appeared in American Poetry Review, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi, The City Pages, The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Portlandia, among other publications. He has edited three anthologies:Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry, The Poet’s Child, and This Art: Poems on Poetry.