As I approach the night when I'll begin to recall again the events of SAA 2009, I have decided to post a few words I've posted elsewhere, words that intermix two strands of my life (archives and poetry), and words that begin to examine a layperson's experiences with archives and archivists:
Today, Tom Beckett posted his response to my last question I sent him in our yearlong interview of each other. What follows below is my answer to his request: “Talk, if you would Geof, about the importance of archives to you, personally.”
The reason I am interested in archives is because, without them, what happens is what you say has happened to you: “That history has pretty much faded from the front of my brain.” Archives are concrete and permanent systems of memory, the best (though imperfect) replacements for the memories of human beings, which fade over time and disappear with the death of the memory’s host.
I used to care nothing for archives. Instead, I was interested in perfection. So as I moved from place to place, I would discard almost everything I made at the place I was leaving. When you move from continent to continent, there’s a great desire within you to reduce your life to its essentials, so every time I moved I would destroy whatever writings or art of mine I thought unimportant. I destroyed my failed retelling of “The Three Little Pigs” (which I wrote during my few weeks in second grade in Millbrae, California), my school records from Ontario, the commonplace books and school newspaper articles I wrote in Bolivia, the humorous stories I wrote in Ghana, my diaries from Tennessee. Each of these I came to find unnecessary because the writing was no longer as good as I had wanted it to be, or the work was already done and needed no memorialization. I regret all those destructions because I’ve lost those memories, and those records. I’m left with fragmented recollections that but murmur a past I want to hear clearly.
So what should you think about The Difficulties Archive? (though I’m surprised to see Yale use the work “Archive” to describe this collection. We would usually call this “The Difficulties, Records” or, maybe “The Difficulties, Archives,” but we almost never use “Archive” in this manner). You should think that it is a privilege to have someone think enough of your creation (The Difficulties and the community it supported) to accept the responsibility to preserve it and make it accessible. You should be pleased that these records will endure past your time on this planet and continue to document an important sliver of American poetic history. You should be happy that the Beinecke, one of the most prestigious archives in the country, has identified your records as being valuable enough to include in its Collection of American Literature. You should understand that, whether you were paid for this collection or not, you received from this attention some little taste of immortality.
After checking online for this collection I discovered that the “Difficulties Archive, ca. 1977-1997” consists of ten boxes of materials, including correspondence, production files, manuscripts, and copies of the magazine and other printed materials. The accession number for this collection (19971120-a) appears to indicate that this collection arrived on 20 November 2007 and was cataloged five days later. The preliminary catalog record for this collection notes the names of five correspondents: Bob Gregory, Jessica Grim, Ted Pearson, Jane Somerville, and John Wellman. This I found a little strange, since my choice for correspondents to highlight—based on fame and length of correspondence—would be Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, David Bromige, Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, and Ron Silliman. It seems that the person doing the preliminary box and folder list didn’t know much about late twentieth-century American poetry, since the list includes mention of Larry Eigder and Pete Gavick, among other unknowns.
I was surprised to find a listing for “‘Geoff Huth’ poetry journals and papers pertaining to them.” I seem to have slipped, even if often slightly misspelled, into archives all across the country. It is as if I’m a virus slowly spreading, preparing to become an epidemic.
And that is the purpose of archives: to keep the virus of art, history, information alive, to infect the brains of our successors with knowledge otherwise unknowable.
Tom, so far during this interview you’ve merely mentioned your work on The Difficulties, yet this was a signature creation in your career in poetry—to which I personally would add your blogging (which transformed your writing and persona), Vanishing Points of Resemblance, and your selected poems, Unprotected Texts. Tell me more about working on The Difficulties. Why did you begin it? How did you get started? What were the joys and frustrations of that work? What did you see as the project that it was? What did this experience do for you personally? And why did you bring it to a close?
Also, tell me about the archives you created. What was in it? Why didn’t you destroy it as you have periodically destroyed “manuscripts, notebooks, computer files, blogs”? How were you contacted about your archives? And what was that experience of working with archivists like? As an archivist, I’m quite interested in knowing how an archivist worked with someone I assume knew little about the world of archives beforehand.