Interview with Poet Ryan G. Van Cleave: A New Anthology of Chicago Poetry

I was really excited recently to get a copy of Ryan G. Van Cleave's City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (pub date April 1, 2012, University of Iowa Press), one of the most dynamic and cohesive anthologies to come to my attention recently. Ryan, with deep connections to Chicago, is the perfect person to put this together, and I was blown away by some of the selections. Ryan is himself the author of many books of poetry, young adult fiction, and nonfiction, and also the editor of the previous anthologies Red, White, and Blues: Poets on the Promise of America, Vespers: Contemporary American Poems of Religion and Spirituality, Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America, and American Diaspora: Poetry of Displacement, all from University of Iowa Press. I recently had the chance to have an email conversation with Ryan about what went into putting together this memorable anthology.

Anis: What previous anthologies of Chicago poetry already existed, and when was the last major one published? What was its emphasis and how is City of the Big Shoulders different?

Ryan: There have been a few Chicago-themed poetry anthologies over the years, including Gwendolyn Brooks' 1971 Jump Bad, Micheal Warr's 1999 Power Lines, and the 2007 title The City Visible by William Allegrezza and Raymond L. Bianchi.

But the last major one (in my mind) was the 1916 book The Chicago Anthology: A Collection of Verse from Chicago Poets (editors Minna Mathison and Charles Granger Blanden). As Harriet Monroe wrote about it, the book is practically a "poetry directory of Chicago" (minus Edgar Lee Masters). It's full of literary diamonds and a few odd literary ducks--Harriet even points out that a poem of hers that was included should be "only too willing have been abandoned on a less public doorstep." Yes, it's not a "great" anthology in the traditional sense. Many great poets are represented, but often not by their greatest works. Ultimately, what I enjoy about this book is the aesthetic battle between conservative elements and modernism taking place in the pages. It's an exciting time in poetry and this book captures much of those tensions, often wonderfully so.

As you can see, there's been more than a few over the years, including a very recent one published on Xlibris. There's a lot of interest in Chicago as character, voice, place, and environment. As one who lived on the fringes of Chicago for more than a decade, married a Chicagoan, and then lived apart from the city I call home for another decade, I think I'm offered an interesting near/far vantage point to see Chicago. I see it as the city of poetry and the city of Chicago in dialogue with itself. The poems pick up, add to, and sometimes undercut this energetic exchange in ways I find fascinating. I also chose to include the voice of the outsider, allowing those who have traveled into and through Chicago to articulate their experiences.

Anis: What goes into putting a good anthology together? How do you make sure the collection is both representative and thematic, both broad and narrow? Tell us about your process of selection--and exclusion.

Ryan: Putting a good anthology together is a lot harder than trying to write your own single author poetry book. It's the negotiation between having a sense of diversity of writers, style, structure, and voice, and also maintaining some semblance of focus. It's easy to make a poetry anthology that's a hot literary mess.

My process is an easy one. Like the two textbooks I edited and the other four poetry anthologies I co-edited for the University of Iowa press with Virgil Suarez, I did what Suarez calls "the poetry walk." You take all--and I mean all--the poems that have come in and lay them out on the floor of a big room (a school gymnasium works well). Like a kid in a candy store, you then start to grab the ones that look too scrumptious to pass up. Pretty soon, you have thirty, forty, fifty in your hand, and then you've got the backbone of the book. The rest is just filling in the gaps and finding the best arrangement for the poems to talk amongst themselves interestingly.

I knew I'd have too many good writers, too many good poems, so I very artificially limited the number of contributors for City of the Big Shoulders to 100, and also 1 poem per contributor. This would ensure I didn't get suckered into a half-dozen poems by, say, Campbell McGrath, who has easily that many world-class quality poems about Chicago (though I was sorely tempted to go back on this agreement with myself at times).

I probably read 1,800 poems and would've loved to have kept 180 of them. But choices needed to be made and I got to 100, though I'm certain readers will claim I missed this person or that person. I agree. I missed dozens of important voices, and that speaks to the scope of this mission. Short of a Bible-sized book, there's no way to encompass the depth and width and range of Chicago poetry without making impossible choices. (That's why it took me more than two years, too. I had to mull things over and over and over . . .)

Anis: I see the recurrence of certain themes over and over: architecture, industrialization, modernity, business, sports, food--all of it overlaid perhaps with the uber-theme, nostalgia or memory, rendered both sincerely and with a bit of a postmodern tinge. Let's talk about the themes first. Did any emerge that surprised you? What to your mind are some of the dominant ones?

Ryan: I expected a lot of art, architecture, modernity, and sports--and I certainly got submissions along those lines en masse. But what excited me was how many poets embraced something Sandburg-like. By that, I mean the spirit of the troubadour, the vagabond, the open road, the harvest. I had the working title City of the Big Shoulders in mind from the start though I was certainly open to changing that in light of the demands and obligations of the manuscript. But the Sandburg connections were definitely there and thus the title stayed. Like Sandburg himself, these poems embraced the poor, the crowds, the songs and stories, the vernacular (check out the "pots and pans clang in broken English" in James Plath's "Plattdeutsch"), and the sense of crucial geographic experiences.

I'm not sure I was surprised by any of the themes that emerged, but I was deeply intrigued by some of them, such as the literal presence of light and darkness, or the vibrant sense of humor (witness the poems of Jarret Keene or Richard Jones). I'd like to think that Sandburg, too, would be pleased by the chorus of voices on such a wide range of issues.

Anis: A poem like Ann Hudson's "My Great-Grandfather Takes a Business Trip" seems to me a poem that seeks to appropriate the heroism of the original city at several removes--imagined memory, as it were, rather than autobiography or biography. Almost fantasy. There are several such poems in the anthology. Such as Thomas L. Johnson's "One likes to think Chicago." Or Barbara Nightingale's "Journey," which I like a lot: "We were reading Howl / and crying, reading / Howl and shouting / above the noise, above the smoke." The city in question doesn't have to be real, does it? Would you comment?

Ryan: I'm aware that my Chicago isn't necessarily someone else's Chicago, and that the idea of Chicago might be more fiction than reality. How better to approach some fictional truth--if there is such a thing--than through the vehicle of the imagination? I'm reminded of Plato's world of the forms that exist apart from our day-to-day lives as I mull this point. James Conroy's poem--and others in this book--play with perspective, or various ways of experiencing/witnessing/communicating with Chicago, and I'm pleased by those powerful attempts at deep engagement that sometimes only come from stark, utter realism or the magic of myth and fable. Why not a blend suited to the cosmopolitan culture of Chicago?

Anis: Building, the sheer vastness of structural/infrastructural dominance, is a theme that comes up again and again. How are today's poets addressing this theme compared to poets, say, in the 1930s or 1950s? I'm thinking of James Conroy's "Hotel Dana" ("A wrecking ball came to the rancid flophouse / on State and Erie"), John W. Evans's "Loop" ("Buildings aspire to height rather than volume, / as though the sun at any moment might stop shining / all the way down to commuters in heavy coats, // stumping the Rust Belt winter beneath elevated trains"), Michael Filimowic's "Radar Ghosts" ("in the zeppelin's windows the aquarium city / shows a gold onion dome unspiraling / blossoming for docking atop a new office tower / suspicious and gaudy in 1928 // when travelers with visas and faith in their telescopes / sporting new lenses and shiny screws / conspired with mapmakers in the viewing lounge / to designate a continent's armpit"), and Lola Haskins's "Dearborn North Apartments" ("Rows of rectangles rise, set into brick. / And in every rectangle, there is a lamp.").

Ryan: I see it too such as in Jenks' and Muench's collaborative poem "Dear Chicago--" where they write: "Burning at a distance we walk / into you: falling glass, lake effects & electricity-- / a Midwest lesson on skyscraper elation." I'm particularly sensitive to this phenomenon since I've been living for a few years now in Sarasota (and that's after a few years in the flatness of South Carolina). There is no structural/infrastructural dominance where I am now. There is no skyscraping majesty. There is no...up-ness.

I think one of the main differences between how poets handled this a half century ago and how they handle it now is that we're no longer as impressed by it. The sense of awe or majesty has dissipated into ability of the general population to utterly ignore the urban monoliths. I think this reminds us not just to stop and smell the roses, but to stop and open our eyes. Jarret Keene does this wonderfully in his "Chicago Noise (Love Letter to Steve Albini)" where he writes: "jostling around inside a metal tube across an ice-cold, / urban-Midwest landscape of old, bombed-out meatpacking plants." Yes, Chicago isn't always beautiful, but when someone reminds me of how parts of it look so much like backdrops to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, I, too, stop and remember to pay attention.

Anis: Did Carl Sandburg really say all that could have been said about Chicago, and is all present work only a gloss on him?

Ryan: Chicago now isn't Chicago ninety years ago, so there's no way Sandburg could have the last final definitive word, poetic or otherwise. In terms of saying all that could be said about his Chicago, sure, I'm open to that claim. But this Chicago is vital and new and desperately exciting. So, too, are some of the new poems about it.

Sandburg was all about the mass of people, the many voices, the energy, the points of intersection between lives. None of those things are ever a constant. In the same way that Romeo and Juliet is a great love story, it isn't the only great love story. Chicago is a muse to the world and new poems about or inspired by it are vital and necessary.

Anis: The poets in this book often seem to want to try to get it all in, so that the poems become decentered in a way, intentionally losing their way, which seems to be an approach to honesty. I'm thinking of Allen Braden's "Postcard from Buddy Guy's Legends: Bar and Grill, Chicago" or John Bradley's "I Saw You" or John Guzlowski's "38 Easy Steps to Carlyle's Everlasting Yea." These seem to me sweet, humorous attempts at desperately catching it all. Would you comment please?

Ryan: There is a vastness to the task of writing poetry of place. An urban environment especially seems to encompass Everything, and some poets feel the challenge to take Everything on. It might be the Don Quixote in me but I like that kind of monumental climb toward meaning.

John Bradley's "I Saw You" seems to acknowledge the impossibility of every getting "it" right, writing: "You wear blue jackets that aren't warm enough. / I wear warm jackets that aren't blue enough." And John Guzlowski's "38 Easy Steps to Calyle's Everlasting Yea" offers a multitude of verbs to encapsulate a single moment: "And eat/write/cry/drink/smoke/laugh and keep holy the Lord's Day all in the same breath." There is a knowing sense of humor underpinning these lines, and that helps defuse any sense of futility to the pursuit of Everything.

Maya Quintero, too, comes at this same task with a sense of including and examining, with the effect being one of interesting juxtaposition. And seriously--how do you not include a poem ending like this?

Or stay
and snap its long,
Grendel-dark spine.


Anis: Another frequent tactic I noticed is to rise above the overwhelming presence of the city, reduce it to a manageable image or story, such as in Donald Illich's "Road Trip." I still think this is desperation of a kind, but I like the tactic. Joey Nicoletti's "Lee Smith" is a successful instance of this tactic, ending with: "A high five from Jody Davis here, / another one from Ryno there; / the stands rattle. The wind pulls a muscle / as fans yell the vine off the outfield wall, / mustard-stained shirts, hot dog smiles, and all." And I think Chad Prevost's "The Chicago Daily Blues" is a successful poem in this regard too.

Ryan: I like the tactic too of how a single iconic narrative moment or key image can represent far beyond the literal. Susan Kelly-DeWitt's "Miniature Church" and Teresa Scolon's "Pigeon Lady" are also playing this same type of poetry game, too. Even in these seemingly small moments, there is indeed an overwhelming presence of the city there, that sense of connection and dislocation and energy. I think that's what so fascinates me about the poetry of place--the chiaroscuro of universal and specific offers a world of meanings and textures and motion. Poems that are in that kind of "sitcom nowhere" feel so much more adrift, unattached, and disconnected from the world.

Anis: I find the poems in the book addressing the darkness (or squalor or unknowability or mystery or misery) of the city more convincing and emotionally appealing than those with a straight take on Chicago, those with a generally upbeat view of the megalopolis. But the dark poems in this book are I think few and far between. Did you notice this too? What are your thoughts on darkness versus lightness?

Ryan: Chicago has a real darkness to it throughout its history. These poems acknowledge it. Consider Joy Harjo's "The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window" or Edward Hirsch's "American Apocalypse" or Linda Gregerson's "The Horses Run Back to Their Stalls." Or even look at Jarret Keene's poem that's a love letter to Steve Albini but somewhere along the way, you realize the speaker is entombed Dilbert-like in a corporate cubicle. Darkness seethes just beneath the surface here just as darkness seethes in the city itself (and not just at night). If there's an imbalance, though, between the darkness and the light in these poems, the blame lies with me, I'm sure. I'm biased. I love Chicago. It's a magnificent place. If I didn't have such a tremendous job at The Ringling College of Art and Design where I work with profoundly talented art students, I'd be combing the want ads in Chicago daily for an excuse to return. So I remain in exile for now. And perhaps that's the best explanation--like nostalgia, being in exile embraces the goodness of the Other, the Past, the Potential Future.

Anis: Related to this is lament, of which I would have expected to see a lot more, though it's there, for example, in Larry Janowski's "Luminaria": "Chicago eats light, sucks it in / like a black ole, hoards it / like a radium dial planning to stay awake all night because / light--like the grass and flesh / we devour--decays."

Ryan: I was open to the idea of lamentation and sorrow, but definitely not so much that it becomes a dirge. I see sadness throughout this book. Don Share's "Wishbone." Barry Silesky's "Huck, with Music and Guns." Martha Modena Vertreace-Doody's "Adagio Villanelle." Scott Wiggerman's "The Facts as I Know Them."

But there's a hope and greatness and sense of brightness to its tomorrow. Maybe it's just me reacting against the times we live in today and wanting to counteract the U.S. economy and the unemployment rate and the general sense of dread we're facing when the words "trillion dollar deficit" get thrown around so casually.

Anis: I could argue that in a sense all poetry about a city like New York or Chicago or L.A. is artificial because of many reasons, one being that it is territory that must be reappropriated from larger cultural vehicles like film or the novel, and that poetry has its work cut out in apprehending a subject as large as Chicago. I think something of this helpless relationship between poet and city is conveyed in Rane Arroyo's "Chicago's Monuments," which begins: "I lived in a city protected from pared winds / by stoic statues of / naked war heroes, abstract peacocks, and / unknown citizens." Patricia Smith's "Chicago" seems to address this dilemma with endearing sincerity. Another poem that comes at the difficulty of disentangling popular history from personal history is perhaps Martin Willitts, Jr.'s "Fields." Can you point to instances from the book that contradict my supposition?

Ryan: An interesting point, but it's probably fair to also say that all literature is an artificial construction, or perhaps more usefully to this point, that no literature is not an artificial construction. Though I do know the task of poetry apprehending the city and the experience/history of the city is a monumental one. I think Janet Wondra's "At the Library" and Jennifer S. Flescher's "With My Blue Flowered Dress" both come at this challenge in useful ways, privileging the personal connection and understandings while acknowledging far more beyond the navel-gazing that too many poems are guilty of.

Anis: Most of the poems lean toward the conventional rather than the experimental, which would have fragmented the subject and denied its knowability. Perhaps Mary Cross's "Summer News," though not really. The aesthetic is generally not experimental. Could you tell us your thinking on that?

Ryan: 2007's The City Visible pretty much cornered the market on experimental Chicago poetry, for one thing, and I didn't want to re-run the same poems people saw in other anthologies--that doesn't excite me. One of the real joys of putting together an anthology is finding new audiences for poets, and that likely wouldn't be the case if many of the poems in City of the Big Shoulders were well-trodden paths.

But perhaps, too, I kept my intended readers in mind throughout the decision-making process. I wasn't putting this book together for the ivory tower of academia but rather the ditch diggers, the taxi cab drivers, and the guys who sell flowers out of plastic buckets on the corners--all people Carl Sandburg (and Whitman, for that matter) would've heartily approved of. I wanted people who don't normally read poetry to find connections in these pages, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or truly experimental poetry tends not to fly high in those crowds. I do believe that many of these poems have decentered meanings and challenging juxtapositions, so there is a richness here which I think might offer much for a classroom of students to gnaw upon.

Anis: I found the most moving thing in the book Lucien Stryk's usage of a D. H. Lawrence quote as epigraph for his poem "A Sheaf for Chicago." Lawrence wrote to Harriet Monroe: "Something queer and terrifying about Chicago: / one of the strange 'centres' of the earth..." In this book, what do you think matches Lawrence's intensity? Interestingly, Stryk begins his poem: "Always when we speak of you, we call you / Human. You are not. Nor are you any / Of the things we say: queer, terrifying."

Ryan: I attended Northern Illinois University in 1990 to be a classical guitar performance major. After switching to philosophy and finishing that program but still having some time left on my four year agreement with my parents, I entered the English major track. To my later disappointment, I realized that I'd missed being Lucien's student by mere moments--he'd taught at NIU for decades but retirement was too much of a siren song for any real poet to resist for long, I suppose. I think the cumulative effect of the book does what some of Lawrence wrote of. In terms of individual poems, Campbell McGrath's "Sandburg Variations" strikes me as moving in the right ways. So too does Edward Hirsch's "American Apocalypse" and Beth Ann Fennelly's "Asked for a Happy Memory of Her Father, She Recalls Wrigley Field."

Anis: I think by far the most successful poem in the anthology is Campbell McGrath's "Sandburg Variations," a mini-epic exquisitely balancing many of the tendencies I've talked about in earlier questions, keeping the tension going throughout the poem, never becoming reductive. It starts: "Money courses through Chicago's veins like the essence urging the redbuds into bloom, tulips made wiser by the memory of snow, template of April and the daffodils paper-hung, bereft, the white whale of winter rendered unto fat." That's just fabulous! Would you talk about your personal reaction to this poem?

Ryan: McGrath is one of my favorites not just in this anthology but in terms of poets working today. He knows how to pay attention, he knows how to sculpt a new world with worlds, and he knows, most importantly, what to leave out. The juggling act of tenderness and conflict throughout this poem explain why he received a MacArthur genius award and, recently, was named a Fellow of the United States Artists.

Perhaps the thing I like most about him is that his poetry IQ is up near Voltaire's, but he can talk Scooby-Doo, baseball, and rock-n-roll with the best of them. How do I not love Campbell? How do I not feel stunningly proud to share his work in another of my anthologies? At the 2012 Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago, I hosted a reading for this anthology and Campbell brought the house down. It's not that the other readers weren't great, but that Campbell is a maestro. And clearly I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Anis: What does this anthology tell us broadly about what's strong and weak about contemporary American poetry? Disappointments? Epiphanies?

Ryan: I'll have to let readers tell me what my anthology says to them about the landscape of contemporary American poetry, but after reading thousands of recent poems in the past few years for this project, my own research, and my own teaching, I can say this: I worry that many poets have become too complacent. It's easy to make a name for yourself and become--if you will ignore the financial implications of this term--a "professional" poet. My wife once quipped that she couldn't spit a watermelon seed off our back patio without hitting a poet in the face.

As one of my poetry professors at Florida State University once warned me, "Poetry is not big box office." But there's a draw to it in how it allows a level of communication beyond the vatic nothing of so much daily life. I wish more poets would not stand so pat with being fluent with poetry but push to break through to groundbreaking revelations and new modes of meaning. I suspect the superficiality of the digital world and its instant gratification model has a lot to do with this. Still, regardless of the personal or social forces at work, I long for more. This probably explains why my last single author poetry book was in 2006. The bar is high--not the bar of publication, but the bar of my own quest for excellence. It's a challenge worth pursuing. Just like the challenge of assembling an anthology that does justice to a massive subject like Chicago, Second City, the Queen of the West, the City of the Big Shoulders.