Tony Towle Ryan Gato


Interview for Words + Images
University of Southern Maine, 2007

Ryan Gato: How would you describe your relationship to poetry?  

Tony Towle: I think I have always had a vague feeling about “poetry” as a platonic abstraction that I aspire to, as opposed to what I have actually written (or will write, for that matter). Poetry as the sudden impulse for me to write poems may have saved my life in 1960, when I had reached a serious emotional impasse. But the need that expressed itself in writing poems quickly moved to the vexed question of what and how to write, and eclipsed the therapeutic aspect of it. It was not a solution to the problems of existence so much as a spellbinding path I could never reach the end of, and so it has kept me going.   

RG: I first came upon your work through David Lehman and Star Black’s The KGB Bar Book of Poems, and later through the Internet. What do you think of the way the Internet has impacted how one discovers new writers?

TT: It would be difficult to gauge how many poets get “discovered” through the Internet and what it can mean for them in the long run. I doubt that even very small presses browse on-line for writers they can publish — it’s still a buyer’s market. But the Internet certainly makes it much easier to find out more about a poet one is looking up — i.e., already knew about — as perhaps you did with me.


RG: Do you think the works of poets are more readily available now than when you were starting out in the 1960s?

TT: Yes, definitely. In the ‘60s and later, there were a few literary bookstores one could go to and browse through the little magazine section to see what was going on and who was new. By the ‘90s there were a few less. And that’s in New York. I don’t know what the situation was over this period in Maine. The Internet has flattened that out with all the on-line magazines (and blogs) that are available anywhere at any time; it has made geography, not to mention the hours one keeps, irrelevant.

RG: How has your association with the so-called “New York School” affected your writing particularly your close association with Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery?

TT: And don’t forget James Schuyler (I almost wrote “Jimmy” but I’ll keep it formal). I would say the association was crucial, and I think my work has been influenced by all four — but it’s really up to others to speculate about exactly how. It might be illuminating to quote a few lines from “Addenda” — which I wrote in 1971:

            . . . I know from Frank O’Hara that the poem and its setting
             are completely at your disposal,
             from Kenneth Koch that the resources of language
             are greater than oneself and thereby liberating,
             from John Ashbery that the mysterious and beautiful
            are still supremely possible
            and supremely inspiring –
            and James Schuyler’s blinding exactitude of observation,
            its serene and tremendous burden. . . .


I discovered the work of these four poets (along with that of many others) in Don Allen’s seminal, and by now antique, anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960, which I came across in a Greenwich Village bookstore in late 1961 or early ‘62. I was daunted but excited — the book seemed to open up worlds of possibilities. By the way, I have seen a certain amount of revisionist “discourse” about the Allen anthology lately, but for me, coming to poetry abruptly, without having read very much of it, either contemporary or from the past, it was a revelation. On the other hand, I felt no such excitement when I browsed through the Robert Pack-Donald Hall “academic” anthology, New Poets of England and America, published two or three years before — to which Allen’s book was seen by some as an alternative.

As it happened, I saw Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara read their work on successive Sundays in a series of readings that summer of ‘62 at the New School (the first poetry readings I attended). I recognized and spoke to Frank at the Cedar Bar a couple of weeks later; took Koch’s and O’Hara’s poetry workshops at the New School in the spring of ’63; met John (who was visiting from Paris) at a party given by Frank that summer, and met Schuyler at the party given by Kenward Elmslie that fall (or winter) to introduce him to the young poets who seemed to have sprung up from nowhere over the previous year or so — such as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, as well as me. 1.


RG: From 1964 to 1981 you worked for Universal Limited Art Editions; you have commented that it “added immeasurably” to your literary sensibility. In what ways did collaborating with visual artists inform your own writing?

TT: Well, it wasn’t collaboration per se. 2. that added to my sensibility, but being around great practitioners of an art that was not my own. Tatyana (Tanya) Grosman, who started ULAE in 1957, was Russian, and was 60 in 1964. She decided she needed a “secretary” and her idea of a secretary was a European one, such as Rainer Rilke to Auguste Rodin — and she thought a young poet would be appropriate, so she asked Frank O’Hara, the only American poet she knew, for suggestions – and thus ended up with me. The position was much more than secretarial — I did just about everything at one time or another except actually print (lithography printing is an art in itself) — this included driving the artists, gallery people, collectors, and museum curators the 40 miles from New York to West Islip, Long Island, where the studio was located, showing the prints, making packages, writing the bills, etc., etc. I was usually present with Tanya when an artist signed, numbered, and titled a new lithograph (etchings were added to ULAE’s repertoire in 1967) and I embossed the publisher’s seal on every print. So I became intimately familiar with the art over the years, as I came to know the artists. I would say it was by a process of osmosis that my time at ULAE affected me, and I can’t pinpoint exactly how it got into my poems; but it did.


RG: Did writing for Arts and Art in America contribute to your sense of style as a poet?

TT: The short answer is no. I wrote reviews for Art in America from 1979 to 1989, and by 1979 (at 40) my poetic style had been long established. With Arts, I was the copy editor from 1988 until 1992; some of the denser “artspeak” I had to deal with inspired a satiric poem, “Rhapsodic Reviews.”


RG: What artistic values in the visual field did you find yourself exploring in your own work?

TT: I’m not sure that I have explored any, at least consciously. I don’t know which “values” can be explored to a literary end, at lease in any practical way. As we all know, a visual work of art is apprehended simultaneously, then more fully understood over time (I guess a sculpture is somewhat of an exception), whereas writing is taken in sequentially, word by word, and then is understood further by repeated readings. It has been said that O’Hara’s “Second Avenue” was a literary equivalent of Abstract Expressionism, but I’ve never been convinced that its effect was anywhere near the same esthetic experience as looking at a Pollock or a de Kooning. There are of course types of “visual poetry” — of which I have managed but one example (“new york  7/29/72”), which appears in Autobiography and Other Poems, but I wouldn’t say that it was an exploration.


RG: Much of your work has an ironic and humorous tone, coupled with surreal imagery or speech. How did you hit upon this style and how has your style evolved over the years? Is it a tone you deliberately work toward?

TT: No, it’s nothing I consciously worked toward. Ironic and humorous is what I have always been, or rather, at some point, maybe at about 11 or 12, started becoming. So it was a tone too ingrained not to creep into my work, and is probably becoming more pronounced as I age. Irony is for the powerless. The rich and authoritative might use sarcasm, but not irony. They want to be understood — irony is ambiguous. I’ve always been skeptical of authority, and irony has a subversive aspect. That might have something to do with it. As far as humor, it is a necessary part of life. I think an utter lack of wit in a poet is a sign of a vastly inflated self-importance (as opposed to my moderately inflated variety).

As for the surreal, it’s always seemed like a natural resource for me. I never doubted its artistic validity. Surrealism had already sifted down into the movies by the ‘40s, and American urban life was arguably surreal in itself before I was even born. I was affected by the surrealist paintings at the Museum of Modern Art when I first saw them as a teenager. Also, my sense of reality has always been a little unreal and my dreams had always interested me — not as character analysis or portent but as another reality. Reality and unreality, the factual and the fictive, are all on the same level on the page anyway, and I see no reason to stick to so-called objective reality, or autobiographical truth, for that matter. I’m not interested in illustrating, highlighting, or even heightening reality, but in transforming it.


RG: What do you make of the debate of form and content being played out between Language poets and New Formalist poets? What kind of legacy do you think this will leave to poets just getting their start?

TT: Well, this is a debate in which I am not at all involved, and in the results of which I have no stake. While I am friendly with several well-known Language poets on a social level, what I take to be their general “project” has nothing much to offer me — it’s too fragmented, too cerebral. I think it may have wonderful subtleties for the initiated, but I don’t have the patience for them. What has annoyed many is the presentation of this disjunctive style as prescriptive, the way Clement Greenberg prescribed “all over” abstraction in the ‘60s as being the true and only way for painters. (By the way, Greenberg painted conventional, figurative watercolors in his spare time, which I have always found odd.)

As to the New Formalists, I’m as interested in their work as they are in mine. They are the inheritors to the poetry in the Hall-Pack anthology mentioned above, and that wasn’t to my taste either. As for legacy, I would hope that poets just getting started would have the presence of mind to sidestep this kind of absolutism — which is not to say that they shouldn’t read the work of individual poets in these groups, at least to see what the fuss is about.


RG: What advice would you offer to aspiring poets?

TT: Well, as indicated above, I would advocate independence of spirit. They should follow where their sensibilities lead, picking and choosing from both the present and past what is of use for their own work. They will inevitably become associated with other poets, but should be wary of the kind factionalism mentioned in your previous question — unless they find that kind of activity (manifestos, diatribes, etc.) entertaining. I wish every aspiring poet the best of luck, but I have to point out that, for many, poetry turns out to be a phase. Poetry can be a difficult row to hoe to say the least, from the point of view of fame and fortune, so to persist one needs to be strongly impelled from within.

The story of my first three years as a poet is related in Memoir 1960-1963, Faux Press, 2001. ^

There was an actual collaboration – a portfolio with Lee Bontecou’s etchings and prose and a poem by me: Fifth Stone, Sixth Stone, published by ULAE in 1968. ^