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This item is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

Letters from Anthony Rudolph, Blake Neuman, Iain Bamforth
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On the occasion of our fortieth anniversary and the story’s seventieth anniversary, your editorial reads my mind better than I read it myself, obviating the need to pay for an advertisement in PNR.

Kind regards, Pierre Menard, c/o Anthony Rudolf, Menard Press

P.S. ‘N’oubliez pas Verlaine’, as that Menard character J-L Borges said to Yves Bonnefoy and Jean Starobinski, when they visited him in hospital during his last illness.
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I was reading PNR 190 with interest until I came to Stephen Burt’s quite extraordinary lecture ‘Transatlantic Disconnections’. I wish I could do justice to its reductive simplicity in words. To take a particularly ill- informed (I’m being polite) passage:

American poets have stopped reading British poems. They have not even begun reading, most of them, the British poets who shared, and who still share, Allen’s or Silliman’s tastes: among Roy Fisher, Jeremy Prynne, Denise Riley, John James, Tony Lopez, Robert Sheppard, Alan Halsey, and John Wilkinson, not one has a US publisher, other than the deliberately transcontinental - and, in practice, Cambridge (England) based - Salt.

While I can’t do much about the fact that Burt isn’t acquainted with American poets who read British poems (!), I can at least bring the distortion of his second sentence into sharper focus: both Prynne and Lopez had a US publisher until very recently, The Figures (Prynne’s US collection, Furtherance [2004], is dedicated to the American poet and painter, Marjorie Welish), and John Wilkinson’s selected early poems, Oort’s Cloud, was published in the US by Subpress in 1999. Halsey, Lopez and Prynne have all visited and given readings in the US in recent years, precisely because their work has an audience there (is Burt somehow unaware of Prynne’s fifty- year connection to American poets and poetry, from Olson through Dorn and beyond?). John Wilkinson, of course, lives in the US, where he teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

Burt refers to the supposed ‘difficulty’ such poets as Peter Manson and Andrea Brady have in getting their work published in the US. Did Peter Manson have to do unspeakable things to persuade Miami University Press to publish his Between Cup and Lip in 2008? What dark secrets does Andrea Brady know about Peter Ganick that he saw fit to publish her book Liberties through his Potes & Poets imprint in 1999? (Let’s ignore the fact that Andrea is actually an American poet, having been born in Philadelphia in 1974.) Has Burt not noticed that a British poet, Steve McCaffery, is the David Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters at SUNY-Buffalo, where several graduate students are currently completing doctoral work on British poets (Prynne among them), as well as publishing many of the younger crop of British poets in such journals as Damn the Caesars and Pilot? But to give examples is pointless - Burt’s piece deals mainly in generalities, airbrushing out the time, energy and money (not to mention the care and devotion) that so many American writers and publishers put into publishing British poets.

This is 2010, not 1953, and the transatlantic dialogue is as lively as it ever has been, certainly since the days of Fulcrum, Goliard, Trigram, et al. (incidentally, I recently heard that the University of Houston-Victoria at Texas is planning a Gedenkschrift for Asa Benveniste). One struggles to wrap one’s brain around Burt’s utterly bizarre contention that British poetry is a right triangle with a long hypotenuse whereas American poetry is L-shaped. WTF?!

Obviously, it’s not uncommon for people to mistake their partial view for How Things Are, but it seems unusual and regrettable that Burt should simply ignore the facts in the interest of developing his argument. And the hubris of the gesture! For a Harvard professor to travel overseas and tell an audience in Glasgow that, basically, they did well to invite him as no one else in America reads British poetry any more! (Glasgow, home of Peter Manson, who, despite the swiftly googlable evidence to the contrary, supposedly has ‘difficulty publishing books in North America’!). Surely there isn’t an American poet alive who won’t be offended by this nonsense?

Burt’s lecture bears absolutely no relation to how poets read and write poems. I am acquainted with a good many American poets (not all of whom are in the avant-garde or experimental traditions) and I can’t imagine approaching any of them with the suggestion that, were they to read more British poetry, they would benefit from a more finely nuanced appreciation of ecology and the environment (and this is quite apart from the fact that ecological and green issues are the explicit concerns of so many contemporary American poets: Jack Collom, Tina Darragh, Marcella Durand, Robert Kocik, James Sherry and Jonathan Skinner among them).

Burt’s lazy journalism masquerading as criticism is simply not good enough - in fact, it makes the world an uglier place for all of us. At the root of my indignation is my own appreciation for the interest and openness of American poets and poetry readers. I hope not a single PNR reader is taken in by the distorted view that Burt presents.

Springfield, IL

Steve Burt writes: Almost all generalities have exceptions; I thought that my lecture noted as much, but apparently the notes weren’t loud enough. (I’ll make them louder should the lecture ever get reprinted in a book.) Most American poets, alas, are not reading contemporary British poetry, but the small set of Americans who have been paying attention to any of it have indeed been reading the ambitious neo-modernists whom Blake Neuman names, some of whose work (Tony Lopez’s poems, for example) I like as much as Neuman seems to like them; others not so much. (I read Lopez in the Salt editions; it’s great to know that The Figures put those books out first.) I don’t understand why Neuman feels compelled to offer a list of US eco-poets: there are plenty such poets - I named a few myself - and my point was that British poetry might show Americans, not how to do ‘green’ writing in general, but how to address a space and a nation where ‘nature’ and civilisation are already inextricably entangled, how to avoid the American dichotomy that sets (deprecated) urbanity and human speech against a (valorised) alinguistic Wild.

As for Steve McCaffery, I’m afraid I did not know that he grew up in Britain; he spent his adult life, and made his career, in Canada, with Canadian presses and Canadian collaborators, and his US readers have tended to see him as a Canadian. (When he called his collection of essays North of Intention, he didn’t mean the Watford Gap.)

I am aware of Prynne’s long and fruitful connection with Olson and with Ed Dorn (who lived and taught in Britain from 1965 to 1970): my point was not that British poets don’t learn from Americans, but that the Americans should try harder to learn from the British. (What did Dorn learn, in his own poems, from Prynne?) The study of Prynne, of his collaborators and heirs, and of the other neo-modernists Blake Neuman names continues to gather steam at the University of Notre Dame (thanks to John Matthias and others), at the University of Chicago, at Miami University-Ohio (thanks to Keith Tuma) and now at its press, and in the repertoire of a few other American scholars such as Romana Huk, Linda Kinnahan, and Robert Archambeau (whose blog everybody should read). I was delighted to see the special issue of Chicago Review (53:1, Fall 2007) devoted to these strands of British poetry, in which Manson figures again.

But these British writers do not seem, to me, as yet, to have exercised either a broad, or a deep, influence on many American poets or poetry ‘scenes’; perhaps in a few more years that influence will become clear, and my lecture will come to seem quite out of date. (John Matthias, who really is transatlantic in his interests and his influences, represents an exception, as his advocates make clear.) Most American poets still do not encounter much contemporary British poetry, and they certainly do not encounter the range of British poetry about which I originally spoke, a range from which the neo-modernist writers whom Neuman names represents just one fascinating part.

Selling Books


Having worked part-time as a student in the early 1980s in one of Glasgow’s bookshops (largely in order to subsidise my own book- buying), I maintain, not least as an intermittent primary producer myself, an interest in the book retail trade. It would now appear, if the fate of Borders and rumours surrounding Waterstone’s have any foundation, that Glasgow (population: 750,000) may soon become a university city in which it is exceedingly difficult to locate a book- shop where browsing offers those moments of what Horace Walpole called ‘accidental sagacity’ that make reading a pleasure. Other provincial cities in the UK suffer from the same wilderness phenomenon.

The number of bookshops in my present home city, Strasbourg (population: 400,000), offers a startling contrast to the current sad situation in the UK; and unless Amazon is redressing the balance, it suggests a radical disparity in reading habits between the UK and continental Europe.

Around the main square in Strasbourg, Place Kléber, are no fewer than five bookstores within a short walk of each other. Librarie Broglie has three floors, and offers an intriguing section of books on Alsace. The spacious penthouse of the chainstore Fnac, which sells high-tech and audiovisual goods, offers a surprisingly wide selection of books, from the French classics to children’s literature and the latest cult BD (comics). Gallimard, the French publisher, has just opened an outlet in l’Aubette, the square’s architectural centrepiece and site of a recently refurbished avant-garde ‘ciné-bal’ of the 1920s. Slightly farther away, in Grand Rue, is the smaller independent bookshop Quai des Brumes, where the browser is never far from serendipity. The oldest- established bookshop, Librarie Kléber, also on the main square, stretches over several floors, and has a superb humanities collection, including texts relating to the European institutions based in Strasbourg. Almost daily, Librarie Kléber’s reading- room offers a platform for writers and read rs to meet and discuss the latest books. All kinds of writers turn up: philosophers, artists and sociologists as often as novelists. Readings are well attended. This month (January 2010), for instance, the bookshop provides an audience for Alain Badiou, James Ellroy, Lionel Jospin, Amos Oz, Henri Godard (world authority on Céline) and Xue Xinran. Librarie Kléber publicises these events in a monthly brochure, Conversations, available free of charge at the front desk (and at I doubt I could walk into a British bookstore, as I did there last week, and find a copy of the two Gallimard volumes of Joseph Joubert’s Carnets - or the work of a comparable British author of the early nineteenth century, say, Carlyle’s Signs of the Times.

It is perhaps an irony, then, that Carlyle was in favour of a free trade in books, since that is what now applies in the UK, supplanting the admittedly rather gentlemanly trade I exercised as a student on Saturdays. In March 1997 the Restrictive Practices Court ruled that the Net Book Agreement was against the British public interest - the rest of the story, especially with regard to stockholding and discounting practices, is well-known. Curiously, the French themselves attempted, in the late 1970s, to repeal fixed prices in the interests of encouraging competition. After two years of turmoil, during which publishers were prohibited from even recommending prices, lists were slashed, and many small independent booksellers went to the wall, a law was introduced in 1982 by Jack Lang, the then culture minister, to regulate the market. Even the French Consumers Union agreed that the free trade in books had led to a marked disparity between cities and towns, where the same book often cost more. Price freedom was undemocratic. France - and most EU countries for that matter - therefore still apply the continental form of the Net Book Agreement, which obliges retailers to sell books at agreed prices (Amazon is able to discount titles by only 5% in France).

I wonder if, in the light of my European experience, and the way in which the selling of books has a complex but significant effect on the organisation of knowledge, the British public interest has not lost out in the long run?


This item is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

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