A Conversation with Poet, Scholar, & Publisher James Sherry — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

James Sherry is the author of 13 books of poetry and theory and one of the leading proponents of both Language Writing and Environmental Poetics. His books includThe Oligarch: Rewriting Machiavelli’s The Prince for Our Time (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018), Entangled Bank (Chax, 2016), Oops! Environmental Poetics (BlazeVox, 2013), Four For (Meow, 1995), Our Nuclear Heritage (Sun & Moon Press, 1991), Lazy Sonnets (Potes and Poets Press, 1986), In Case (Sun & Moon Press, 1980), Part Songs (Awede Press, 1978). His work has been translated into nine languages including the Chinese edition of Selected Language Poems (Sichuan Literature and Art Publishing House: Chengdu, 1993), translated by Ziqing Zhang and Huang Yunte. He is the editor of Roof Magazine and Roof Books, a seminal literary publisher, associated with virtually every innovative strategy in English language writing of the past 40 years, publishing over 150 titles of seminal works of language writing, flarf, conceptual poetry, new narrative and environmental poetry and poetics. He started the Segue Foundation in 1977 that has produced over 10,000 events in New York. Sherry was born December 30, 1946 and lives in New York City. 

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell me about your new critical study, Selfie:  Poetry, Social Change, & Ecological Connection, which just launched from Palgrave MacMillan.  

James Sherry: I’ve been writing Selfie for more than seven years and have published two other books—The Oligarch and Entangled Bank—while composing the ideas and shape of Selfie. In those years, other poets have made it increasingly apparent that, beyond describing nature, poetry’s approach to language and thinking plays an important role in slowing climate change since cultural change, along with inventions, has already caused climate change. Poetry can promote cultural change, and already does.

Selfie: Poetry, Social Change, & Ecological Connection presents a general theory that connects poetry to environmental thought and treats poetry as an ecosystem. In addition to the diverse creative processes of an individual writer, poetry develops through material linkages similar to those between all apparatuses, human and non-human, that comprise the biosphere. These connections perform the missing functions in current psychological and social theory on climate change that make the problem intractable. 

The idea of connectivity developed for me as a poet when I realized there were ideas between things. There are ideas in verbs and even in articles and prepositions linked by syntax. Further ideas were carried between different scales by metaphor and synecdoche. I expanded this connective grammar by reading about ecosystems and computer systems and realizing that people’s ways of thinking and feeling are constructed similarly to those other two. In fact, human bodies operate like ecosystems and computer systems were built to organize information like people do. 

Selfie starts building its network model of ecological connectivity in poetry from individual identity to social groups to ecosystems and the biosphere to demonstrate how poetry language scales throughout this manifold of life forms. Selfie’s assemblages and cross-disciplinary links are not far removed from dozens of constructions in science and cultural theory from Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomy to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality. 

To bring these theories into the poetry world, Selfie links contemporary tendencies of fluid individual identity, social thought and ecology to detailed components of poems like parts of speech, diction, grammar, metaphor and syntax to show how their inter- and intra-connections scale throughout our worlds. Selfie urges readers and writers to contribute to plural, inclusive taxonomies of poetry and self that map to social and environmental diversity as an alternative to the evaluative hierarchies that threaten to burn out our world.

KMD:  Your critical study makes impressive use of performative language.  Here, innovation in the forms of literary scholarship is not just novelty, but instead, heightens the impact of the book’s provocative theoretical claims.  What can scholars learn from poets and other creative writers about performative language and its often overlooked potential with respect to literary and cultural criticism?  

JS: The argument between materialist/constructivist “natural” perspectives and linguistic/performative models is not an invitation to turn everything into language, but there are many language structures outside the human uses such as genetics, plant communication and metabolic programming.  The question to investigate is whether these language constructions in biology are a metaphor or whether human language is one of many linguistic methods the biosphere uses to build itself. I’m suggesting in Selfie that these language structures are inherent (natural) in the construction of the biosphere and not a projection of human’s unique language skills onto “nature.”

Poetry can mix forms of writing in presenting its perspectives, emphasizing how people, things, ecosystems and their different modes of discourse exist separately and together. Styles and formats of writing operate in Selfie like species in an ecosystem, supporting and competing with each other. We can see and feel the borders of a poetic form, but it doesn’t operate independently. At a larger scale, poetry does not exist alone and the language of poetry doesn’t either. Poetic language overlaps speech, description, narrative, non-poetic grammars and the varieties of syntax. Poetic language and multiple forms of poetry working together can inform scholars clinging to disciplinary boundaries how the problems confronting them, especially around climate change, need to cross the borders of thought.

Your question also raises the topic of the separation of theory and practice which can be bridged in a more complete environmental model by including the linkages between them: similarities and differences may all be presented in a multi-disciplinary environmental model. Put another way, theory exists with respect to practice as well as to its performances like prose and poetry formats. Language and matter have a complex and inseparable connection to each other; they are not alternatives, but do present differences. Presenting Selfie in several formats expands its performance to the operations of poetry like verse forms, metaphor and synecdoche, multiple modes of writing like argument, directional sentences, poly-referential verse, citation and paraphrase and enhances my ability to perform my own identity as a multiple as well as engage it in social and environmental dynamics. 

My choice to use multiple forms to present Selfie’s discourse stem from ideas I explored in my prior poetry book, Entangled Bank, taken from Mallarme, Objectivism, language writing, Bruno Latour and to cite Karen Barad “A performative understanding of discursive practices challenges the representationalist belief in the power of words to represent preexisting things.” This is true for poetry’s representations as much as the ability of scientific studies to represent what actually is going on in the biosphere.

At the same time the question of ego, of whether a falling tree makes no sound if no one hears it must give way to including what we already understand quite explicitly: sound is movement of air in a particular way that can be measured whether you hear it or not. A hearing test, for example, shows that sounds happen outside your range of hearing? Environmentally, then, the connections and inter-intra-actions across those connections make things like discursive forms less independent and more susceptible to the kind of shape shifting available in poetry and that I use and support in Selfie.

Environmentally, materialist perspectives seem believable for those who believe and act based on scientific fact while performative discourse operates to convince and build models for those who find it difficult to accept the facts or whose interest is tied to the habits and profits of fossil fuels. These people’s minds can only be changed by performative discourse like poetry, like the white supremacists whose minds gravitate toward Trump’s contrafactual performances as icons to gather around, regardless of their truth. As Feyerabend points out the relevance of specific facts changes with the theories employed. Without a model that operates across theories, fact have little grip on those whose reality is built on belief, or those scientists whose beliefs may not be visible.

KMD:  Selfie is certainly impressive in its formal daring.  But I also appreciate the way that your book champions undertheorized writers and literary texts.  Can you speak to the importance of broadening the conversation in this way?  

JS: When I started my public career as a poet and editor in 1976, most groups of writers defended their poems and ideas about poetry as if they were property. The NY School writers attacked the young language writers and vice versa. They both attacked an ill-defined “academic” tendency. Such distinctions are still widely discussed in the poetry world, but poetry has expanded its focus to the concerns of non-binary gender which changes a lot of love poetry, to racial groups who were not widely read outside of their communities and the recognition of social classes and identities that torque the Romantic ideal of the Poet to the extent that discourses now appear in poems that were not accepted by mainstream culture. 

I have a different notion than simply asserting many points of view in a cacophony that does not support expanding culture to include nature and culture as natural. Rather than evaluating poems like a contest and building an evaluative hierarchy of judgments, a pyramid of good, better, best, that largely supports individual opinions and separate social groups, what about understanding difference in poetries like a taxonomy? Selfie presents such a non-evaluative method in an effort to prepare poetry to include individuals, social groups and humanity’s surroundings in ecological connection. 

Of course, we have our taste and there are objectively bad poems, but I’m suggesting good, better, best can effectively be replaced by catalog of poetries containing individual poems. NY School poetry helps make the everyday vibrant. Language writing helps understand the power dynamics of society. Poetry focused on race clarifies the deleterious effects of prejudice and italicizes how racism pressures language to take new shapes for oppressed groups. Poets concerned with gender revamp the entire notion of identity as I point out in “The Particles” chapter of Selfie. Ecopoetry and ecopoetics in their most effective formations clarify humanity’s functions in the biosphere and in my own work connects to non-poetry and adjacent ways of thinking and writing.

This multi-disciplinary view of poetry aligns discourse and taxonomy, the ways we talk about and read poetry, encouraging literary activities that can be understood similarly to the inclusive hierarchy of species rather than a set of authoritarian commandments and evaluations. Once you allow yourself to look at poetry this way, even for a minute, an ecological model connecting poetry, society and the biosphere becomes possible. I’m not saying you embrace this world view right away; it needs to be reinforced in several ways before you change your mind, but it becomes conceivable. The critic’s ability to broaden the conversations about poetry helps readers accept how cultural change can slow climate change.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a critic, you are the publisher of the renowned Roof Books.  What has curation opened up within your practice as a writer, scholar, and thinker?  

JS: To answer this question from an environmental point of view, I’d link it to the prior one. Roof started as a way to promote those under-represented writers who were not necessarily supportive of mainstream literary, political and spiritual ideas, but as the trends in the poetry published by the press advanced into the public sphere, I began to see that there wasn’t any one kind of writing that I wanted to support. I wanted Roof Books to illuminate an entire alternative poetry world composed of multiple poetries, to make the ecosystems of the poets comprehensible. I wanted readers to value the writing, the lives and the interactions of poets with non-poetry components both near and far. 

One of the important paths to comprehensibility turns out to be the many connections between groups of writers who criticize each other and their similarity in asserting their own primacy. Not all poets and groups are constituted this way, but many writers see creativity as a product of difference and conflict, as one of the primary proofs of serious intent. And some of these poets call themselves pacifists. I agree that difference is the creative part in physics, biology and poetry. To quote Selfie: “Matter was created by slight differences in temperature. Life was created by affinities of different molecules. Nearly every person was created by parents of two different sexes. Society is strengthened by the contributions of different perspectives, classes, races, cultures, genders, and skills. Difference creates.”

These poetry groups want to speak of themselves as a unit and their cadre as a unit and their surroundings as a unit instead of understanding all of them, even themselves, as constructions, built similarly from related components of a physical/conceptual world that they all share with different emphasis. Fear and desire often lead to emphasizing only the differences. The distinctions between these constructions, their order and connectivity are fascinating to me, to the people who create them and often, if the builders are talented, they are interesting to others who did not create them because readers can connect to the assemblage. 

This brings me back to Selfie that tries in several of its chapters, especially “Borderlands” and “Environmental Identities,” to map those connectors in detail in spite of the difficulty I find in overcoming the tendency of both poets and critics to emphasize the thing-like, independent character of the poem. The poem is a thing with edges, but it develops that thinginess through the process of assembling components connecting the poet, the page and the world in many wonderful configurations. Instead of the jewel, the hard to penetrate, hard to break entity of a poem, I think of a multi-dimensional network of connectors of many kinds, flowing in multiple directions and strengths of flow that construct a poem. 

Building the Segue Foundation and Roof Books taught me these ideas as much as writing poetry and reading the poets, scientists and social critics. The idea of connection is central to the meaning of the musical term segue. As I realized how Roof was connected in both directions, to and from the poetry it published, my work as a poet and as an editor shifted its focus from the production—writing, editing and publishing—of poems to the study of the actual, detailed practice and components of writing, editing and publishing poetry, a performative practice. Even writing became a bi-directional process that didn’t end when the poem was completed and sent into the world. 

KMD:  I’m also a great admirer of The Segue Reading Series, which has hosted some of the most innovative poets and performers in New York and internationally.  What has your participation in a larger arts community made possible within your thinking about poetry, innovation, and ecology?  

JS: Individuals do not thrive alone; neither does poetry. Those poets who isolate poetry from their lives or poetry from the social/environmental moment miss an important part of why poetry is valuable to our humanity. The initial impulse to write comes from connecting one’s individual proclivities and skills with poetic language as well as a syntax-like responsiveness to one’s social and environmental surroundings. I choose these ecological generalizations for environmental poetry rather than the fashionable asides of our humorous conspiracy because, poetry has many ways to perform with our worlds, and there are many poetries. 

I have been privileged to participate in several of the important tendencies in American and Canadian poetry through the Segue Reading Series. Reading Series curators have tapped into some of the international tendencies in exploratory writing from England, France, Norway, South America and Asia Pacific—Australia, Philippines, China, Vietnam, Japan. Other curators have emphasized LGBTQ+ poets or writers concerned with race.

The series continued to be interesting to audiences and funders by restructuring it from an annual calendar controlled by two curators to a series of short seasons each controlled by curators presenting different progressive poetries. Every two months, two curators present the poets, poetries and ways of performance they want audiences to consider. Sometimes, there is little interaction between the different groups, sometimes curators find continuity from one season to the next. For example, this fall Nightboat will present its authors for two months, then Lonely Christopher, my co-editor at Roof, and I will present some of our authors, then Artists Space will showcase poets interested in visual arts and finally in April/May Le’Andra LeSeur & David Lindsay will present poets focused on performance.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?   What else can readers look forward to?

JS: Thanks to the encouragement of Ben Friedlander, I have just completed an essay on concepts of scale in environmental poetry titled “Scalar Properties” that will appear in an issue of Paideuma in 2023. I’m also working on a set of poems from the past 3 years, but it’s in the early stages and I hesitate to say what it will become. The medical, political, climatic, martial and other conflict zones have made the world feel more volatile than recent decades even as wars against Islam fade. I expect my poetry world will continue to focus on environmentalism and I want my writing to connect to its emerging poetic habitats. 

Meanwhile, as I try to move on from daily administrative work, I want to configure Segue and Roof to continue in some form. Currently, I’m working with poet and dramatist Lonely Christopher to build new audiences and connections to new groups of writers who represent the progressive poetry and theater of the next generations. Asserting Selfie as a kind of connective text will, I hope, help people to find ways to be together while retaining their variety.