An Interview with the editors of American Hybrid

By The Editors on 4.21.09

Cole Swensen and David St. John are the editors of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. Their goal in this anthology has been to articulate the dramatic changes in American poetry over the past twenty years. So how to describe those dramatic changes? Put simply, American poetry is no longer dominated by the “two camp” model; instead, today’s poets are working in hybrid modes that inherit from both the experimental and the conventional. The result is energetic, challenging, and entirely committed to the human project of enriching life and our ways of understanding it.

Poems Out Loud: I’d like to begin by addressing the definition of the American “hybrid” poem. We’re not talking about the radical juxtaposition of “conventional” and “experimental” forms here.  Rather, we’re talking about something brand new—unprecedented, as you’ve called it, Cole. Could we begin by clarifying what we mean when we say “American hybrid”?

Swensen: The hybrid poem is marvelously difficult to define, precisely because it’s not a single thing, so instead of speaking of “the” hybrid poem, I prefer to speak of hybrid poetry as a rich tendency in contemporary letters that draws its influences and impulses from all extremes and from everything in between. That said, what we’ve gathered in this anthology is not a collapsing-towards-the-middle, not a center-between-extremes, but is actually the opposite; it’s an errance off the linear continuum that runs from the conventional to the experimental, an errance that explodes that narrow, linear path into an open field. And from there, it goes everywhere. Far from homogeneous, this work is feline; i.e. to try to categorize it would be like the proverbial “trying to herd cats.” What this work does have in common is an iconoclastic spirit, a bricoleur sensibility, a flair for adventurous chemistry. Most poets writing in this way, and all those included in the anthology, have a strong sense of history, which in the arts is so liberating because it means that you don’t repeat anything, but start at the point that others’ experiments left off. That’s what’s happening here: a continuation of many, many tendencies, each turned in a new direction.

Poems Out Loud: Would it be appropriate to say that in hybridizing the core attributes of previous poetic “camps” (i.e. Romanticism, Modernism, the various avant-garde movements, New Criticism, Language poetry, et al.) we’re discovering forms of radical aesthetic newness?

Swensen: Yes, definitely. The radical changes we’ve seen in technology and communication have had a dramatic effect on the public’s attention and participation, and that has had an effect on aesthetics as well. Any era’s aesthetic is a reflection of its questions and attentions, which are always innumerable and subtle. This work captures the unique aesthetic of our age—vigorous, yet careful and precise; inventive, yet scholarly; demanding, yet dignified.

Poems Out Loud: But “hybrid” doesn’t imply aesthetic improvement, right?

St. John: We’re addicted in America to these ideas of “improvement”—everything has to be, of course, “new and improved.” I think “hybrid” suggests instead an idea of aesthetic and historical movement. It’s an engagement with multiple aesthetics, and art today is (and has been throughout the 20th Century) all about multiplicity, simultaneity, and–in literature–polyvocality. We live in a time of foliate poetics, an enfolding of varietals.

Swensen: I don’t think a given aesthetic is a matter of “good” or “bad”; it’s more a matter of precision and reflection. The aesthetic stances expressed in this anthology are extremely diverse, but they’re also all deeply engaged in refining themselves, in keeping always at the very edge of their own questions, in remaining alive, and that life, if captured correctly, which it is in the poems presented here, remains a permanent thing.

Poems Out Loud: Any thoughts on where experimental poetry is going? Do you think “experimental” is still a useful term as applied to contemporary American poetry?

Swensen: “Experimental” is not only still a useful term, it’s always a crucial term in poetry, American or otherwise. Poetry that’s not experimenting is hollow, a husk. And I mean this not only in relation to experiment’s shared root with “experience” but also in the way the word is commonly used today—poetry has to keep trying out new forms of being in order to fulfill its mandate of “purifying the language of the tribe,” as Mallarme put it, of keeping the tool that is language sharp enough to keep cutting into more of what was previously the unsayable.

Poems Out Loud: What about the American hybrid poet’s engagement with, say, recent French poetry? We could take Stacy Doris as an example, since she’s featured in the American Hybrid anthology. Could you discuss how French poetry might intersect with her work?  Feel free to point to other poets and other traditions.

St. John: Cole, because of her own background as a superb translator from the French, can speak to Stacy’s work and this issue more directly, but I feel it is only one example of the kinds of intersections with other traditions and other disciplines and other cultural nuances that almost all of the poets in American Hybrid represent. There are also some younger poets, poets who hadn’t yet published the necessary three books when we began considering who we might include, whose work seems to me especially resonant with these ambitions, and to my taste Joshua Clover, Nick Flynn, and Matthew Zapruder fit the bill. I would also have liked to have included the poet Gail Wronsky, who is perhaps the American poet most directly influenced by French Surrealism and its traditions, and who has always incorporated hybridity throughout her work. That’s begun to feel like an oversight to me.

Swensen: There are some poets in the anthology who have been influenced by French poetry, and Stacy would be a great example (and recent French poetry has also been influenced by her). But French work is no more a predominant influence than the work of many other languages—Arabic, Korean, Spanish, German, and others. The past 40 years of American poetry have brought so many things into the mix—including a lot of things not American. This work in particular brings in elements from all over the world—often not blatantly, not in a scenic or touristic fashion, but through deep and subtle variations in perspective, sound possibilities, and ethical and practical concerns.

Poems Out Loud: Cole, you’ve described the current world of contemporary poetry as having a sort of rhizomatic structure “branching outward toward smaller nodes, which themselves branch outward in an intricate and ever-changing structure of exchange and influence.”  In this new poetic landscape, you’ve said, it’s much harder to achieve consensus or to maintain stable criteria whereby we can assign aesthetic value to a work.  What are your criteria for evaluating the hybrid?  To what extent do you see poetry’s historical evolution as necessarily shaping our aesthetic judgments in the twenty-first century?

Swensen: I see the difficulty of establishing stable evaluative criteria as a good thing because it encourages readers to consider each poem as a unique instance (which it is). If there are no yardsticks against which to measure a piece, the reader has to bring much more attention to his or her reading, has to become more deeply entwined in the poem. David and I discussed criteria endlessly during our selection process and found that we were constantly inventing new terms because those that had served to discuss one poem wouldn’t serve the next one. And we resisted the impulse to establish any a priori criteria, but did keep coming back to the question of a given work’s relation to the human experience—not whether it reflected or presented the human experience well, but whether it constituted such an experience right there on the page.

Poems Out Loud: Since I directed that last question to Cole, I want to direct a question to David now. David, you say in your introduction to American Hybrid that “all aspects and variants of hybridization in American poetry are of equal and lasting value, and that, in fact, the variety of hybridization found in our living poetry at this moment constitutes one of the most vital elements of its importance.” With this in mind, you’ve said you’re persuaded by an American poetics that is based upon plurality?  Would you go as far as saying this is a more populist view of American poetry?

St. John: Well, emotionally and politically it would be nice to be able to say so, but no. Pluralism is simply and clearly different from populism. One could say though that it is, I feel, a more generous and eclectic view.

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