With the new academic year in full swing, poets and scholars across the country are no doubt turning their attention once again to the major poets of the last century. But at the Center for Humanities in New York City—part of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY)—some students are taking their work one step further, creating a series of chapbooks that feature rare or previously unpublished letters, journals, and other ephemera of mid-twentieth-century poets culled from personal and public archives around the country.
In launching Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative in the spring of 2010, cofounding faculty Ammiel Alcalay and Aoibheann Sweeney were not so much looking to join a conversation as to create a new one entirely. A medievalist by training, Alcalay realized that though much of his own scholarly work required him to engage with an academic dialogue centuries in the making, the same kind of discourse simply didn’t exist for his students, who were studying modern poetry. “Students only doing contemporary research often don’t have a sense of the material around which there has been a long buildup of commentary,” Alcalay says. “I’d bring in piles of old magazines, and my students would look at them and say, ‘Why is this person criticizing this other person? I didn’t think they had anything to do with each other.’ It opened up a whole universe of connections often left out of the written history.”
What began in this seminar setting bloomed into an ongoing project with CUNY graduate students—mostly those working toward PhDs in English literature—to publish original research based on texts housed at the Library of Congress, the University of Texas in Austin, and the New York Public Library, among many others. While Sweeney and Alcalay have overseen the editing process, the projects for the series have been devised and created almost entirely by the graduate students themselves. “It’s always the students who visit the archives and come back and say, ‘I found this very cool thing,’” Sweeney says.
Lost & Found publications coordinator Sampson Starkweather notes that the series, now in its fifth year, has become something of a political time capsule. “This is what was left out,” he says. “Seeing what the omissions are within a canon or literary tradition actually helps you learn more about it.” Series IV, published this past May, features Adrienne Rich’s materials from literature classes she taught at CUNY in the 1960s and 1970s—a time of student protests—and previously unpublished poetry by Vincent Ferrini, who struggled to overcome his working-class background and became a union organizer in Massachusetts. But the series also serves to demonstrate how writers’ visual compositions and correspondence often offer as much artistic value as the writing itself. “The things that get passed down tend to be the text, the major poems,” Starkweather says. “But it’s interesting to see the ephemera, the visual trail that these writers and poets leave. Some of that is as enlightening as the text.” Series III includes the facsimile of a handwritten book by Lorine Niedecker, while Series IV features story- boards by experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, which accompany poet Ed Dorn’s unrealized screenplay “Abilene! Abilene!”
Though Series V, due out in fall 2015, is still being compiled, Alcalay says one chapbook will likely include a collection of letters Kathy Acker received from other contemporary poets, including Dorn, Ed Sanders, and Jack Hirschman, among others. Another project, led by PhD candidate Alex Wermer-Colan, will feature Beat novelist William S. Burroughs’s process of cutting up and rearranging text by William Shakespeare, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jack Kerouac. Other students are examining photographs taken by Langston Hughes during a trip to central Asia in the 1930s, and plan to present them alongside excerpts from the poet’s travel diaries. The forthcoming series will also include the project’s first work in translation: writings by Algerian poet and editor Jean Sénac, the openly queer revolutionary who hosted radical American poets like Allen Ginsberg and Bob Kaufman on his radio program.
“Lost & Found opens up new thinking about these people,” Alcalay says. “How has their work been perceived and used in other parts of the world? That’s another principle in the whole project: If you’re an archaeologist, you dig in a particular place and it leads you to many other places.”
Rebecca Bates is the assistant digital editor of Architectural Digest. She has written about art, books, and pop culture for NYLON, NYLON Guys, the Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.