City Lights Publishers just released Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals by John Wieners. This book, in conjunction with Wave Books’ Supplication: Selected Poetry of John Wieners (also released this fall) are meant to bring John Wieners back into the conversation of great American poets of the 20th century.
This book is also part of an ongoing project by Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, whose aim is to open the field of inquiry and illuminate the terrain of essential chapters of twentieth-century letters.
Michael Seth Stewart, who edited Stars Seen in Person, answered our five questions.
About the Book: John Wieners was on the periphery of many of the twentieth century’s most important avant-garde poetry scenes, from Black Mountain and the Boston Renaissance to the New York School and the SF Renaissance. Having achieved cult status among poets, Wieners has also become known for the compelling nature of his journals, a mixture of early drafts of poems, prose fragments, lists, and other fascinating minutiae of the poet’s imagination. Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals of John Wieners collects four of his previously unpublished journals from the period between 1955 and 1969. These journals capture a post-war bohemian world that no longer exists, depicted through the prism of Wieners’ sense of glamour.
“These pages of notebooks and poetry—so exhaustively exhumed and returned to light and breath—are equivalent to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, but in reverse. John Wieners (forever young) evolved through his prose notes towards a sustained poetics of adolescence, holding that tormented phase on a long unyielding band-wave, resisting the sop of adult living with all his might and undergoing the inevitable punishments that such persistence brings.”–Fanny Howe
About the Author: Michael Seth Stewart recently earned his PhD, editing the complete letters of John Wieners. He teaches literature and film studies at Hunter College. He also edited The Sea Under the House: The Correspondence of John Wieners and Charles Olson (Lost & Found).
City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?
Michael Seth Stewart: My first visit to City Lights was when I was 16. I went to San Francisco with my family on vacation, and had two requests, 710 Ashbury and City Lights. I remember very vividly the smell of the bookstore, and the weight (not much!) of the Pocket Poet books I bought, as many as I could, all of them were read to death many years ago now. Every trip to SF since, City Lights is my first stop, and it’s never not thrilling to be in those rooms.
CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?
MSS: Stars Seen in Person has a soundtrack: Billie Holiday live at Carnegie Hall, 1956, released in 1961 by Verve Records, filled with holiday classics that John Wieners absolutely treasured. I’d argue that Billie Holiday’s style–on all levels–had as big an impact on Wieners’ poetics as did Edna St. Vincent Millay and Charles Olson. In the liner notes, Nat Hentoff wrote a description of Holiday that reminds me very much of Wieners: “The beat flowed in her uniquely sinuous, supple way of moving the story along; the words became her own experiences; and coursing through it all was Lady’s sound–a texture simultaneously steel-edged and yet soft inside; a voice that was almost unbearably wise in disillusion and yet still childlike.” When I defended my dissertation, a collection of Wieners’ letters, I gave the committee two gifts (bribes): a jar of genuine Appalachian moonshine and a copy of Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall.
CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?
MSS: The first book I remember finishing and loving was Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. So important, and every child should read it, and then lend it to their parents. The first book which was read to me was The Godfather, which my father read aloud to my mother when I was a baby. It’s still a favorite.
CL: If you weren’t a writer, what might you do?
MSS: Honestly my writing and editing is secondary–by a country mile–to teaching, which is the thing I do. I’m currently teaching writing & early American lit at my alma mater, the University of Alabama–after a decade or so in New York, it’s really refreshing to be here.
CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no Wi-Fi).
MSS: If I were stranded on a desert island, I could do pretty well (if not for long–my survival skills are pretty limited) as long as I had access to ice-cold Coca-Cola and a whole lot of mystery novels.
Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals by John Wieners is available now from City Lights and at your local independent bookstore.