After fifty-six years, Burning Deck—one of the country’s most important experimental poetry presses—is closing up shop. We spoke with Rosmarie Waldrop, who cofounded the press with Keith Waldrop in 1961, about Burning Deck’s origins, the work of publishing poetry in translation, and the presses she feels will continue the work BD began. The press’s penultimate book, Elke Erb’s The Up and Down of Feet, translated from the German by Waldrop, was published last month and is reviewed in Words Without Borders.
Words Without Borders (WWB): Burning Deck was founded in 1961, as a magazine, and then later transformed—after the fourth issue (if my research can be trusted)—into a pamphlet series. Could you tell us a bit about where the idea came from and what the catalyst was that prompted you and Keith to found Burning Deck? What were those early days like?
Rosmarie Waldrop (RW): The catalyst for Burning Deck magazine was the early 1960s “war of the anthologies” between “the Donald Allen” and “the Hall-Pack-Simpson.” Both anthologies claimed to represent current poetry, and not a single poet appeared in both of them. Keith and his two fellow grad students, James Camp and Don Hall, were irritated by this too-clean dividing line between, roughly, “Beats” and “Academics” and decided to edit a magazine that would print and review a wider spread of poets.
Actually the first publication of Burning Deck, in 1961—before the magazine—was The Wolgamot Interstice, which came about because Joe Gula, a friend of Don Hope’s, wanted to learn how to use a linotype machine and needed an immediate project. Don Hope put together an anthology from our group of poets in Ann Arbor and Detroit.
The magazine started in 1962. As we couldn’t afford printing costs, Keith and I bought a letterpress and learned to set type and print by trial, much error and some professional advice. Friends were rounded up for collating and stapling parties. The mag was planned as a “quinterly.” But instead of five times a year it came out only four times in five years. By this time the three editors had scattered to teaching jobs in different areas, and mailing manuscripts back and forth (this was before email!) had become too slow and cumbersome to continue. This made us switch to pamphlets edited by Keith and me and appearing irregularly, whenever we could get around to printing them.
WWB: What prompted the focus on German and French poetry? Did this come about simply as a matter of the languages from which you and Keith translate, or was there some other motive?
RW: Basically, yes. But there was again an outside catalyst. In 1986, Paul Green, British poet and editor of the press Spectacular Diseases, asked me to edit a magazine of current French poetry in English translation, “Série d'Ecriture.” I did this for five issues (three of which were by single authors), but they looked rather ratty. So starting with No. 6, I took over production with Burning Deck and shortly after added the German series “Dichten=.” Paul continued to distribute both series as well as other Burning Deck books in England.
Burning Deck publishing has been more “putting in the pot,” contributing to and helping create community.
WWB: In a 2005 interview with Matthew Cooperman for the journal Conjunctions, you mention that after moving to the US in 1958, you had a crisis of sorts as a poet, saying, “I wanted to be a poet, but thought it was not possible after I came to the US and ‘lost’ my language.” To what degree, and in what way, did translating poetry into English—and publishing poetry in translation through Burning Deck—come to bear on your own work?
RW: Translating was crucial in giving me the courage to try writing in English. Exploring the space between languages has remained essential for me. I see translating and writing as two modes of the same process. The two modes inform and cross-pollinate each other.
Burning Deck publishing has been more “putting in the pot,” contributing to and helping create community. The slow process of hand-setting poems has also taught me much about the line, and especially leanness!
WWB: In your poem “The Round World,” which plays on a theme of vision (and illusion, mirrors), there is a stanza that reads:
the eye knows
even where there should have been a lake
It occurs to me that in some cases this might be an appropriate metaphor for translation itself, if we think of translation not as a literal mapping or correspondence but as a search for the place “where there should [be] a lake.” To what extent does the process of translation mimic this sort of extrasensory (or perhaps “ultra-sensory” would be more precise) discovery?
RW: That’s beautiful. Translating as the search for that correspondence that doesn’t quite exist but should and can only be approached, approximated, surmised!
WWB: In addition to translating and publishing translations, you’ve also had your own work translated into at least a dozen other languages. Has that experience—of having your own poetry translated, particularly into other languages you speak—at all informed the way you view your own body of work or the art of translation?
RW: When I know the other language it’s a bit like Alice through the Looking Glass, an eerie otherness, both mine and not mine.
WWB: Of the 120 or so books that Burning Deck has published over the years, is there one that sticks out for its personal significance?
RW: Counting the chapbooks, it’s actually 247. The one that has meant most to me personally is Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s The Heat Bird. It became a kind of matrix for my book, The Reproduction of Profiles.
WWB: If you were founding the press today, is there anything you would do differently?
RW: Well, I’d know from the start what we realized gradually: that the idea of inclusiveness is more beautiful than practical if you have very limited means.
I see translating and writing as two modes of the same process. The two modes inform and cross-pollinate each other.
WWB: You’ve spoken in other interviews about the vibrant springing-forth of small literary presses and magazines in the 1960s, when Burning Deck was founded, and how in that sense you felt like it was one of many presses performing the exciting work of literary and linguistic renovation. Now, after a run of fifty-six years, you’ve decided to pass the baton. In what ways was the landscape for poetry—and particularly experimental poetry in translation—different when the press was founded? When you look around, which presses, if any, do you see as continuing the work of BD?
RW: What matters is to find inexpensive ways of publishing new work. In the sixties it was anything from mimeo and xerox to letterpress. (The latter because printshops were moving to offset and dumping their letterpresses.) Now the affordable form is online, and there are many exciting online publications, for instance the journal Asymptote. Or Duration Press, which both publishes work and also web-hosts other small presses, Burning Deck among them. For books, however, printing on paper remains the better, more durable technology. Presses like Litmus, Ugly Duckling, Omnidawn, Nightboat, Wave Books, and many others are carrying on.