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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.” 
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the June–July 2019 issue

“Keeping / the window open” Brings Together a Fascinating Trove of Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s Work

Reviewed by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue

From interview to collage, from poetry to prose, from the 1950s to the 2000s, this volume edited by Ben Lerner combines a generous compendium of the Waldrops' work as poets, translators and publishers with a selection of essays and interviews in which they meditate on their craft.

To spend time with Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s Keeping/ the window open: Interviews, statements, alarms, excursions is to enter into a flux of time that is both the past and future of American letters. The 372-page, large format book, recently published by Wave Books, is a tribute, a compendium, and also a repository of illuminating insights for writers and translators concerned with the questions that Rosmarie and Keith have been struggling with since the beginning of their trajectory—the relation between form, language, and materiality being perhaps the most conspicuous among a group of central concerns that are considered from different perspectives throughout the book. Keeping/ the window open allows the reader to follow the development of these themes in chronological order, but at some point in my reading I began jumping around: from interview to collage, from poetry to prose, from the 1950s to the 2000s. I was thinking, as Rosmarie Waldrop points out various times in the book, of how poetic writing is a dialogue with language itself, and of how the words found here “reveal their own vectors and affinities, pull the poem into their own field of force . . .” One doesn’t have to read this book in a straight line, from beginning to end, to see the development of both Keith’s and Rosmarie’s artistic lives and recurring poetic obsessions. The crucial themes in this book can be better apprehended through another kind of reading, one that roams its pages freely to produce jump cuts, collages, superpositions in the material gathered there: from Keith’s early playscripts to his letterpress broadsides, from Rosmarie’s very first translations to her later essays on the craft.

Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop met in Germany, where she is from, when Keith was stationed there with the US Army. They met at a Christmas concert in Kitzingen in 1954. Their first joint translations date back to this era; it was with translation that their romance began. Later, they met again at the University of Aix-Marseille before Rosmarie moved with Keith to the University of Michigan. They have worked and lived since the early 1960s in Providence, Rhode Island, where Keith is professor emeritus in the literary arts program at Brown University. Through many years of working on translations, writings, and publishing projects they have continued to collaborate, particularly on their publishing house, Burning Deck Press. Created in 1961, the press produced numerous books of poetry and experimental prose, including many important titles of German and French poetry in translation. By the time they announced in 2017 that they would be closing the press, they had already published 247 titles.

More than once in this book, the Waldrops discuss their relation with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the avant-garde group that developed around the eponymous magazine created by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews in the late 1970s. Although their concerns can be seen to overlap at times, this relation is not one of direct affiliation. The difference in the Waldrops’ understanding of their own work, when compared to Andrews’s or Bernstein’s, is perhaps that they never believed it would cause revolution—if anything, slow deliberate change would have been a more likely outcome for them. They are clearly interested in the political implications of writing, however, to the point where even the basic structures of language can be seen to have political import. At one point in “Alarms and Excursions,” an essay about what it means to be a writer, Rosmarie writes: “[sentence structure] is also a feminist preoccupation . . . So I propose a pattern in which subject and object function are not fixed, but temporary, reversible roles, where there is no hierarchy of main and subordinate clauses, but a fluid and constant alternation.”

 The close attention to language applies to all forms of their work: poetry, prose, translations, interviews, but also what they do as editors and publishers. In an interview with Ben Lerner, Rosmarie discusses her move from Germany to the United States in 1958 and her decision to begin writing in English. She felt paranoid about Germanness seeping through her work, she says, but then she had a revelation when she realized anglophone poets are putting on voices as well: “Why am I so afraid? Am I trying to prove I know English? In every poem? Thereafter I loosened up and also felt free to use German texts.” These words can serve as a model for where literature can move from here, beyond national borders or homogenous conceptions of language that imply something self-contained and restrained. It is this attitude of play and willingness to change that makes the collection so valuable to all kinds of writers. Peter Gizzi, in his interview with Keith, points out that the Waldrops set a model for him and so many others of how to make a “life in poetry.” An important distinction, because shortly before that moment Keith mentions how he “can’t quite fathom wanting to be something.” Doing the work, writing the poems, that has always been the important part. And somehow this seems rebellious today, to be unconcerned with labels and outcomes, to be concerned firstly with the task at hand. 

The loosening of language confines goes further when Keith writes: “I remember him [Richard Wilbur] saying that he had a particular liking for words that mean one thing and one thing only. This struck me as a very interesting idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, if I had to make a choice, it would be quite the opposite: I would prefer words to have a spread of meaning, so that one could say more than one thing at once.” It is the opposite of so much that we have been told about language, about translating. It is a strategy that moves away from realism and toward a surreal, proliferating, multiplying text. It is also a more honest assessment of the reader and everything she brings with her to each reading.

One of the most admirable elements of the Waldrops’ collective work is the subtle line of theory running through it while also never having to make itself too explicit. The theory does its work so that the poetry can embody the principles Keith and Rosmarie each later mention in essays and interviews. In her discussion of the fragment, for instance, an important topic in literary theory since the writings of the Jena romantics between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, Rosmarie affirms that the “ultimate task” of translation “may be to bear witness to the essentially irreducible strangeness and distance between languages—but whose immediate task is exactly to explore that space.” One can read in a remark like this one the traces of Maurice Blanchot’s thinking, his idea that the fragment represents the closest possible reflection of thought in writing, the honest and broken piece of a too large world. Blanchot is ever present in her books and letterpresses so wonderfully reproduced in this book, but he remains, as other important references, a background figure, someone Rosmarie is constantly conversing with even if she doesn’t address him directly. 

The relationship between words and sentences and languages is what the Waldrops have spent a lifetime exploring. Charles Olsen comes up often to reiterate the importance of the relationships between words rather than the search for the mot juste. Another oft-appearing name is that of Edmund Jabès, whose The Book of Questions is one of Rosmarie’s first published translations. In fact, discussion of Jabès, how Rosmarie came to translate him, and the Waldrops’ friendship with Jabès and his wife Arlette is an important element of the book. The couple helped the Waldrops when they were living in Paris and became lifelong friends and collaborators. This friendship is one sign of the larger project of the Waldrops’ life—to build community through language.

Reading this collection of texts leaves one feeling that there is a great deal of possibility in the world of publishing and writing avant-garde works of literature, and, to be clear, a feeling-centered sort of avant-garde. That is, a writing not concerned with experimentation for the sake of experimentation, but a pushing of limits in order to allow language to speak to our deepest ideas and emotions. In an essay on ideas about writing, Rosmarie remarks: “The poem will not work through its content, through a message which in any case would speak only to the already converted, but through its form.” It is the structure that will somehow make change. Structure seems infinitely important to their work but it is also the biggest challenge both in their original texts and in translation, though they never seemed to make a distinction between translation and their own writing. The elements of both practices infiltrated each other, demonstrated that in fact they were all part of the same practice. Keith writes, “The fact is that to translate is harder than writing something ‘of your own,’ since you face all the problems, all the difficulties, of composing any text, but in addition, the obligation to relate it in some way to another given text.” Writing as composition. It is no coincidence then that they greatly admire the writings of John Cage, a music theorist and composer who was concerned with silences, breaks, and defining music within the found material of our modern soundscape.

 Looking over the ideas and forms presented in Keeping/ the window open, it becomes clear that both Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are supranational authors, authors who have never been concerned with the creation of a national literature or tradition but rather are in search of a higher set of concepts around language and the written word. In Rosmarie’s translation of the third volume of The Book of Questions, there is a quote from someone named only as Reb Aloum: “My book has seven days and seven nights times the number of years it took the universe to let it go.” This book of the Waldrops is a small piece of the large book of the universe. It is personal, wise, and has something to offer anyone trying to “make a life in poetry.”


READ MORE: Experimental Poetry Press Burning Deck Closes Its Doors: An Interview with Rosmarie Waldrop (Interview, December 2017)

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