Poetry is a musical language that can cast readers under its spell, yet the subtle art of its construction is often a mystery. To help deconstruct that mystery, Elisabeth Frost, associate professor of English and director of Fordham’s Poets Out Loud, decided in 2002 to do a “six-month” project on innovative women poets, publishing excerpts of their work straddled by personal interviews. Her colleague, Cynthia Hogue, the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University, was her collaborator.
“We found in teaching and reading that connecting a poet’s voice to her work could be incredibly illuminating and powerful,” she said. “We wanted to do a collection of the women with their own voices talking about their work, as well as including their work.”
Six months turned into 3.5 years and resulted inInnovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry & Interviews, ed. Elisabeth Frost & Cynthia Hogue (University of Iowa Press, 2006). Poets Out Loud hosted a book party at the Lowenstein Center, Lincoln Center campus, on Feb. 5, featuring readings by six of the poets and interviewers included in the anthology. Two of the evening’s readers, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Alicia Ostriker, have been nominated and/or won prestigious awards: Berssenbrugge is recipient of two American Book Awards and Ostriker has twice been nominated for the National Book Award.
Also featured were poets Kathleen Fraser, Jeanne Heuving, Claudia Keelan and Leslie Scalapino. Collaborating with Fraser on a visually based poetry presentation was artist Hermine Ford, whose seductive collage design adorns the book’s cover.
“Musically, visually, analytically, not all poets are alike,” said Hogue. “They are doing different things even under the same rubric. We are here to pay tribute to these poets and to strike up a dialogue around the theme of innovative women.”
Frost said that the anthology pays homage to, in particular, the work of an older generation of poets, some of who have been writing for 30 years and have gone relatively unacknowledged in the academy. Frost and Hogue concentrated on finding poets who connect their poetry to the visual arts, who are performance-based poets, and who are “politically oppositional,” yet innovative, in their style.
“We wanted to choose writers who are often pegged as political poets, and [therefore]whose inventiveness of form is not always addressed or appreciated,” she said. “We also wanted to expand the notion of what ‘innovative’ means—to focus on writers who are taking risks in their work, both politically and stylistically.”
The anthology is dedicated to poets Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa, a Mexican-American working-class poet, and Barbara Guest, an improvisational poet from the New York School. Both women, who were interviewed for the book, died before its publication. The anthology’s 2004 interview with Guest, Frost said, was the last one the poet ever gave.
“Barbara Guest gave very few interviews in her life, so we feel this is one of the most important contributions to the book,” Frost said.
The anthology also attempts to open up divergent camps of poetry—avant-garde, performance, African-American—and regroup them, expanding the notion of what is “innovative,” Frost said. “We found such a wonderful array of women writers that it was extremely difficult to limit the number. We could easily do another.”