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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Interview with Mary Ann Caws
by Mark Spitzer || Author's Links

Manifesto: A Century of Isms

Ed. Mary Ann Caws
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln

My initial reaction to Mary Ann Caws' big huge brick of a book was of befuddled frustration. After spending months and months reading the impressively organized anthology (which covers some of the major works of Symbolism, Primitivism, Cubism, Nowism, Presentism, Simultaneism, Futurism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Dada, Vorticism, Imagism, Bauhaus, Plasticism, Surrealism, the Oulipo and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, etc), I felt some disgruntlism because many of the works I thought were important were not included.
     So I wrote a review for the Corpse in which I railed against a view I felt excluded much of the pre-Modern and Postmodern genius of the century. In the end, I stated that the best use I found for this book was when my father smashed a scorpion with it this summer in New Mexico. In the spirit of the incendiary Italian Futurists (and Artaud shouting out "All writing is pigshit!"), I then called for a revolution in the School of Manifestoism, in which manifestos do the new they were designed to do, rather than repeat the language of the past for the scholars of the past! This was followed by 216 exclamation marks.
     Luckily, though, the Boss stepped in and put an end to my shenanigans.
     "Spitzer," he told me (with that gracefully gravelly accent of his), "don't be an ass. Go to the library, read all her books, then interview her."
     So that's what I did. And it led to this conclusion: When you take on a project that encompasses the "isms" of the twentieth century, you're bound to ruffle more than just a couple feathers. There are hundreds of works for thousands of tastes and you can't go publishing 1500-page books these days to satisfy everyone, because that would be Absurdism. What you can do, though, is organize the works you prefer -- and the works that work together -- which is exactly what Mary Ann Caws did, and exactly what we're doing in this Manifesto Issue of the Exquisite Corpse.
     (Secretly, and respectfully, though, I still rebel against Poe's "Philosophy of Furniture," Kurt Schwitter's "Cow Manifesto," and everything by Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, and Hélène Cixous).
     Nun-the-less, this is the best collection (and only collection) of manifestos I have ever seen. The roster includes William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Tristan Tzara, Gary Snyder, Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Edvard Munch, Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Marcel Duchamp, Mina Loy, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Salvador Dalí, Antonin Artaud, André Breton, Aimé Césaire, Paul Eluard, Charles Olson, D.H. Lawrence, Marsden Hartley, Frank O'Hara, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, W.E.B. DuBois, Edmond Jabès, and more. It isn't easy reading, and I wouldn't recommend it for a day at the beach, but I would recommend having it around as a huge yellow resource. I'd also recommend it as a textbook for teachers in all sorts of disciplines (especially the humanities) to trigger debate and provide a perspective (not to mention killing scorpions).
     Anyway, here's the interview:

SPITZER: I know you address this in your introductory essay, but for our readers who have not yet seen your manifesto anthology, could you summarize what the criteria were for the pieces you picked to be included in this book?

MARY ANN CAWS: First, there was the decision NOT to use political manifestos, just aesthetic--whatever that means. Then, the positive decisions: their style, and the way they are readable now. Next, my personal fascination with each of them. Then, their importance for ongoing poetic thought. Finally, their relation to each other.

SPITZER: Were there any pieces you wanted to use but could not use, and if so, could you tell us why? Were there any works you felt were important, or that you had an affection for, but had to leave out because they might have been out of context?

MARY ANN CAWS: No, except that limits of space meant the exclusion of things like the "Cannibal Manifesto," which a friend and I translated from the Portuguese... I used everything I most wanted to, including some really long things.

SPITZER: Although the book is subtitled "A Century of Isms," and is concerned mainly with the twentieth century, the works in it range from 1834 to 1995. I suppose that the reason for including some of the nineteenth-century works was because they were ahead of their time and they affected or were relevant to many of the writers you chose from the twentieth century. Is this a correct assessment? And if so, could you cite some specific names and works as examples?

MARY ANN CAWS: Yes. The Whistler, the Wilde, and the Mallarmé remain of ultimate importance. AND I am very fond of each of them.

SPITZER: Can you describe the balance between Modernism and Postmodernism in the works selected for this book?

MARY ANN CAWS: About half and half, I expect, although there was no conscious decision to do that.

SPITZER: Any particular reason why Rimbaud wasn't included in the book? Seems to me that poems such as "Voyelles" and prose works such as the "lettres du voyant" were revolutionary works that majorly affected many of the writers in the anthology (i.e., Tzara, Breton, no doubt O'Hara, etc).

MARY ANN CAWS: First of all, I thought that Rimbaud was too well known, and then, I wanted very much not to use things so clearly NOT part of a collective movement. Nor, of course, was Whistler's "Ten O Clock," but it was the initial reason for wanting to do this book. Not just because of the connection to Mallarmé, but because of its very outlandishness. Its style. Its ultimate oddity. Its brilliance. But I will try not to go on about my individual enthusiasms. However--I could.

SPITZER: So, I guess that would also explain why Breton's manifestos on surrealism were not used. Just wondering, though, did you consider Kerouac's "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" or any of his essays on jazz and poetics, or Ginsberg's "Howl," or were these works too disconnected from the European manifestos that seem to dominate the anthology? In other words, what about the Beats?

MARY ANN CAWS: I did not use such important manifestos as the "Surrealist Manifesto" (the first) because 1) I didn't want to use extracts, and 2) it has some incredibly BORING moments. I wanted no boring here. Ah yes, not the Beats because of no room. Were I able to do an expanded version, I would LOVE to add more, including the "Cannibal Manifesto" I expatiated about... some day maybe. A volume like: AND MORE MANIFESTOS. Maybe I will bring it up someday--maybe not.

SPITZER: If you did another manifesto anthology, what else would you like to include?

MARY ANN CAWS: I'd put in the surrealist manifestos, two of them, another or two other Dada manifestos, the "Cannibal Manifesto" of Andrade in Brazil, some of the Beat ones, the red stocking one, all the ones I mentioned in the preface, and so on. About 100 extra pages.

SPITZER: Just out of curiosity, do you think any of the following names might find a home in this hypothetical anthology: Michael McClure, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Kenneth Rexroth, Henry Miller, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Virginia Woolf, Amiri Baraka, the Una Bomber?

MARY ANN CAWS: Absolutely, yes, well, some day.

SPITZER: So what are you working on now?

MARY ANN CAWS: How nice you asked: people always love what they are working on "now," I expect. I have just turned in the texts for The Yale Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, hoping there are too many, having excitedly commissioned rather a lot, and chosen still more. Then, I am finishing up a book for Reaktion Press in the UK and some press here, to be determined, on Robert Motherwell with Pen and Brush. I am at the copyediting stage of Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings (Palgrave, 2002) and preparing to edit Maria Jolas' memoirs, in which a few publishers have expressed interest. And have signed a contract for Surrealism in Phaidon's Themes and Movements series.

SPITZER: One last thing, in your 1970 book The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism, you wrote that Eluard "continues to be the most read and most loved of all French poets since Apollinaire." Do you think this has changed?

MARY ANN CAWS: Oh, of course it isn't Eluard now, it seems, gloriously, to be René Char among the classics (at least that is what transpired to be true when I participated in Wordfest's First International Poetry Festival in Washington last month), and Yves Bonnefoy and Jacques Roubaud among the living poets.


(Smash! Another scorpion bites the dust).

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