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An Interview With Editor Jenny Penberthy

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Online Only, posted 5.03.02

Poet Lorine Niedecker was born in 1903 into the remote sounds and silences of Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin. She lived in the small town for most of her life, and created a poetry unique in its mixture of "rootedness" and exploration.

Married briefly when she was young, Niedecker worked as a library assistant, proofreader, and finally a "kitchen cleaner" at a local hospital until her second marriage at the age of 60 to Al Millen, a house painter from Milwaukee, allowed her to quit working. Though the residents of Black Hawk Island, including her second husband, were largely ignorant of and indifferent to her writing, the importance of Niedecker's poetry was recognized by her peers—from poets Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky to Cid Corman and Carl Rakosi.

Apart from Black Hawk Island, the most important influence in Niedecker's life was Louis Zukofsky. Having written him after reading his Objectivist issue of Poetry, she initiated a thirty-five year correspondence (and brief romance, when she visited him in New York). They shared their ideas and work while Zukofsky sent her poems out to Ezra Pound, James Laughlin, and others for publication. However, the closeness of their relationship did hold a price for Niedecker. Zukofsky discouraged her attempts to publish a series of poems entitled "For Paul" which, named after his first child, Zukofksy felt were too personal for public consumption.

Niedecker wrote in many genres—poetry, plays, prose and critical essays—but publishing opportunities were rare. New Goose (1946) and My Friend Tree (1961) were her only books, until the final years of her life when two collections were published: T&G: The Collected Poems (1936-1966) and My Life by Water: Collected Poems 1936-1968. She died of a stroke in 1970. Niedecker's husband destroyed her remaining papers, according to her wishes.

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy, a professor of English at Capilano College in Vancouver, was published in April by the University of California Press. The collection presents all of her surviving poetry and plays.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Penberthy how she first discovered the work of Lorine Niedecker.

Jenny Penberthy: I was lucky enough to read an interview with the British poet Basil Bunting conducted by Jonathan Williams and Tom Meyer. Bunting was asked which women poets he read, and his reply was: "One of the finest American poets at all, besides being easily the finest female American poet (Emily Dickinson is good from time to time-but there are a lot of Emily Dickinson's poems that are pretty miserable) Lorine Niedecker never fails; whatever she writes is excellent." Since I have immense respect for Basil Bunting's judgment, I had to find this unknown poet. I was lucky. The University of British Columbia library had T&G on the shelves. That was 1981, and I've been immersed in Niedecker's work ever since.

P&W: She instructed her husband to burn her manuscripts after her death; did she express other wishes regarding how her surviving work should be published, or regarding what should be published? Was it difficult to track down her remaining writings?

JP: Niedecker had prepared her manuscripts and papers in advance of her sudden and early death. As you mention, she left instructions for her husband to destroy her own papers. These appear to have included letters received from Cid Corman, Basil Bunting, Kenneth Cox, Clayton Eshelman, and other correspondents; her journals and notebooks; and possibly drafts of poems. A large collection of Zukofsky materials-drafts of his poems that she typed from the 1930s through to the late 1950s, her notes about his work, her transcriptions of his poems, and many other items-was also left with instructions for her husband, in this case to send it to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. This important bequest is currently catalogued as part of the Louis Zukofsky Collection. It is, of course, a great loss to us that she chose to destroy her own records while preserving Zukofsky's.

She left no instructions for future publishers of her own work. The two editions of collected poems that she compiled omit large amounts her work. But with the help of her letters, I was able to trace uncollected poems to remote magazines. The Louis Zukofsky papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin include an invaluable collection of Niedecker's drafts and manuscripts dating from 1934 to 1964. This was a source of previously unpublished poems and also a source of much of the material used in the 100-page section of notes at the back of Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works.

In 1995, Burton Hatlen found the long 1934 poem "Progression" in the Ezra Pound papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale. And then about five years ago, I found the wonderful 27-page pocket calendar poem "Next year or I fly my rounds, Tempestuous" filed with miscellaneous items of unidentified authorship in the Zukofsky collection at the HRC in Austin.

P&W: In your introduction you write that Niedecker was "a poet with twin allegiances to a rural backwater and a metropolitan avant-garde." Did she struggle to reconcile the distance between these places?

JP: She appeared contented with the indirect access she had to the avant-garde. The Fort Atkinson library [in Wisconsin] ordered books for her; Zukofsky kept her supplied with the magazines she couldn't find; she bought books in Madison; and Zukofsky's weekly letters kept her in touch. Rural Black Hawk Island held great appeal for her. As it gradually declined towards squalor, she did think about moving but always to other equally isolated locales. For most of her life in Fort Atkinson and Black Hawk Island, she kept her poetic practice hidden from the townsfolk. Yet she also imagined a kind of invisibility for her work amongst the urban cognoscenti: She told Jonathan Williams that her only distinction was her folk poetry.

P&W: Niedecker had a long, vital, and complicated relationship with Louis Zukofsky, who at different times encouraged and discouraged her efforts at publication. Was it ever her sense, or yours, that he could have done more to help get her poetry "out there?"

JP: She was always grateful to him for his role in circulating her work. He promoted Niedecker's work within his circle of contacts, but it was a small circle and he too struggled to find recognition for his work. Their poems appeared in the same magazines and most of their books were published by the same publishers. The unpublished "For Paul and Other Poems" produced particular stresses in their friendship largely because of the personal nature of the poems. Zukofsky refused Niedecker's request for a preface to the collection, but there is no evidence that such a preface would have increased her chances of finding a publisher.

P&W: You mention also that you had to leave out Niedecker's critical essays about Louis Zukofsky and Cid Corman. Do you have plans to publish these essays, and are there any other projects you envision for her work?

JP: These two critical essays will be published in the next week or so on the Electronic Poetry Center's Niedecker page. In a few month's time, Steve Dickinson's Listening Chamber Press will publish my edition of New Goose, a collection of all 86 of Niedecker's poems written during her 1935 to 1945 Mother Goose-influenced period.

Finally (and this really will be the last of my work on Niedecker!) I am editing the roughly 300 pages of notes made in preparation for her poem "Lake Superior." Aside from their revelations about her compositional method, the notes are full of their own poetry.

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