Christopher Sweeney, the reclusive director of The Corresponding Society (and editor-in-chief of the journal), was recently caught on tape in a conversation, with this blog’s web editor, which addressed specific issues related to our press and journal as well as broader considerations of contemporary poetics and the processes of younger writers. Characteristically he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Lonely Christopher: How would you define The Corresponding Society?
Sweeney: It’s a project that was conceived in, probably, November 2007 amongst a group of writers⎯six of us, I would say, who’ve been living in Brooklyn now for a long time. The group itself began before that with a reading series we started called The Gates Salon (which is basically an open mic for friends, associates, and really anyone who wants to come). I think, to some extent at least, it’s an attempt to begin more concretely developing a community of writers⎯not necessarily along any specific aesthetic lines or particular approaches to craft, but a young group that’s Brooklyn-based (although we don’t exclude people from other locations).
LC: What are the purposes or functions of Correspondence?
Sw: I think the hope is probably, on one hand, that it’s intended to be an outlet for publication for young writers (that’s how it is mostly right now, but we also feature older, more established writers) that we know and are excited about; the second thing is to begin to encourage a journal that is really focused on an advanced development of craft and formal ability.
LC: What makes our establishment of a group (a press) relevant or appropriate considering that the ideologies and formal directions of all the members are so dissimilar?
Sw: I think that it’s obvious looking at The New American Poetry anthology, which published a lot of work at the time focusing on many different journals, and throughout much of the last half century’s work, that oftentimes literary groups don’t form along specific aesthetic lines; often it’s just a lot of talented individuals that grow out of an engagement that does not necessarily translate into congruent ideas. I think it’s often the conflict of ideas, opinions, and styles that leads to better work and better engagement than a sort of unanimous consent or congruence.
LC: How do you feel literary journals function in the landscape of contemporary writing as you understand it and, considering possible paradigmatic shifts that have occurred over the past century (especially re the Internet’s influence), do they function as vitally as possible in our contemporary context?
Sw: I don’t know for sure; I’ve actually had trouble with this question for other journals⎯and our own. In general my experience with literary journals coming out recently is that it’s been pretty bland. Poetry in general has not excited me much in the last fifteen years of work that I’ve seen. I think most of the time literary journals have no effect or no meaning. It’s difficult to maintain a literary journal for its own sake⎯more or less, anyone publishing in a journal, particularly anyone of note, is also publishing elsewhere; so there’s little to distinguish one journal from another. I think one possible use of a journal, one of the better uses that I can currently think of, is as a formal documentation of a literary community through time. I don’t think there is any journal or that there’s going to be any journal that necessarily stands out. I think, in a lot of ways, that a simple documentation of a group is a worthwhile goal for a journal.
LC: What are your expectations and hopes for The Corresponding Society?
Sw: I certainly would like to continue publishing. Our schedule for the journal right now is biannual; I think the ultimate goal is for it to be quarterly. Also the press wants to begin publishing novels and book-length poems or collections soon. Furthermore, the hope would be to increase circulation.
LC: How would you describe an ideal reader of Correspondence?
Sw: I think in some ways the best readers so far have been the people involved. It’s been rewarding and interesting to hear the responses of contributors. While I know just about every contributor, not all of them know each other; it’s been interesting to introduce writers to each other.
LC: Isn’t that a little hermetic?
Sw: Yeah, certainly. I guess I don’t know what expectations to have for a wider reception of the journal.
LC: How does geography relate to the Corresponding Society⎯that is to say are we mostly localized or do we represent work being produced in various locations and coming together through a medium of communication such as the Internet?
Sw: It’s certainly based in Brooklyn⎯but in the first issue we published work by a handful of people from Connecticut, from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Denver, San Francisco, Scotland, and Paris. In a lot of ways it extends beyond Brooklyn; for some involved we communicate primarily through the Internet and the press. The hope for the future is that it will extend even further.
LC: How do you perceive the state of the arts in Brooklyn (especially concerning the writing community, which is so often marketed as strong and important here)?
Sw: It is often marketed that there are strong writing communities here⎯I personally have no idea what those people are talking about. There certainly are writers in Brooklyn, there are many, but I don’t think many of them are interesting. For me, and there’s certainly something I could seriously be missing, but the two dominant trends that I see from where I stand include a style of work which⎯I know you won’t like this⎯harps on experimentalism and novelty for its own sake (as far as I understand it), and then there’s confessional or memoir-based writing that’s more about telling and sharing personal stories than it is about direct engagement with craft (and I don’t find that interesting either).
LC: How do you see your peers developing as writers in contradistinction to your ideas about writing?
Sw: There are actually few people developing along the same lines as myself. I think Dave Swensen (a contributing editor) is someone often working in a similar vein, but that’s pretty much it. I mean, you are someone whose work is very obviously developing in a different direction than mine⎯it’s work that’s really engaged with innovative formal elements. Chanelle Bergeron (a writer in the first issue) is going in another direction still⎯whereas I often take Pound, Eliot, and Crane as my models I see a lot of cummings in her work. I see a sort of wordplay and imagination that I don’t feel I currently have. Then there are certain writers, Matthew Daniel and Robert Snyderman, who I think are⎯certainly not disengaged, but maybe I don’t even understand fully the formal direction by which they’re approaching their work. Robert’s work is somewhat similar to mine in that he takes dialogues from Persephone, Hades, and Demeter⎯but he’s pushing it in a more experimental direction. I’m not really sure.
LC: As somebody who is deeply invested in the model of high modernism, do you think contemporary poetics are problematic and if so, how⎯and what must young writers do to engage with poetics in a more important/relevant way?
Sw: Well, I have spent a lot of time studying, working, writing through the high modernists. I think I’m trying to begin to step out of that⎯not that it’s gone too far but one poet I’ve been reading a lot of recently is John Berryman, who has traces of high modernism but begins moving it in a much less romantic, much more colloquial direction. I think the fact that I’ve been so obstinate with the high modernists has been a fault in some ways, yet in some ways I do get the impression that a lot of the time young poets are not making the necessary commitment to discovering and studying the poetic tradition that precedes them; they sort of skim through, or skip over entirely, Eliot and Pound simply because at first glance it’s difficult. Often it’s those same writers who don’t do much reading of earlier poets. One person I began reading a lot of in the last year is John Donne. So I think there needs to be a more effective engagement with the historical tradition of poetry, and I think there’s just a fundamental danger with attempting to found your poetics solely on the current decade or two of work. The danger with reading contemporary work is always the fact that it’s easy to get caught up in trends and fads and to not be able to discern what’s enduring about any given poet. Unless you can begin to do that you don’t really even have a grounds on which you can judge contemporary work.