Poetry Santa Cruz
Poetry Santa Cruz

New York Poets in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001
Jack Anderson and Penny Cagan in Conversation

Jack Anderson, dance critic for the New York Times and respected poet, and Penny Cagan, a poet whose first book she describes as a love letter to New York City, met recently to discuss the events of September 11 and how they have been affected personally and as writers. Anderson and Cagan will read their work and answer questions at Louden Nelson Community Center on Tuesday, October 30 at 7:30 p.m.

JA: My partner George and I had returned from a vacation in Europe the evening before September 11th. We took the airport bus home and riding down the West Side Highway we saw the wonderful view of the city, and of course, the World Trade Center in the skyline, and little did we know it would be for the last time. The next morning I was unpacking from our trip when George said an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. We ran outside and from the street we could see the towers burning and watched them ultimately crash. The word I keep using about all this is surreal. It was surreal because despite the fact that there was all this consternation and fear in the world, it was a really nice autumn day and there was an unsettling contrast between this difficult event and the niceness of the day itself.

PC: It truly was a lovely early fall day -- thank you, Jack, for reminding me of that. I worked downtown at One Liberty Plaza directly across from the World Trade Center and I was there when this all unfolded. I stood for a while across the street from the burning towers, transfixed with hundreds of others, and it was like you couldn't take your eyes off of it -- and it never occurred to me, or anyone, to leave the area, that the towers could ever come down. But it is like I was watching a silent film because I was never able to process the sensory details and I heard no sound, felt no shaking of the ground, smelled no acrid smoke at the time. I just stood and watched. I am still trying to remember how I got home that day.

JA: I certainly have not written anything about the events. I don't know if I ever will. Throughout my writing career I have referred to things in my personal life such as the death of my parents and other changing events in order to make a stronger literary or artistic point but I have never been a confessional poet -- so my writing is only seldom directly autobiographical. One worry I have is that writers are going to be so legitimately shaken by the events that they are going to start gushing forth with appalling stuff in response and little magazine editors will be inundated with this kind of unformed material. We saw this happen decades ago when a whole slew of poems came out in response to the death of President Kennedy.

PC: Unlike Jack I do think of myself as a type of "confessional poet" but always aim to make the personal larger as I believe the best "confessionals" did. I have drafted a few poems about the events of September 11th but am not yet able to go back to them and work through the necessary edits and drafts. I fear my efforts might be of the sort Jack refers to that came out after the death of President Kennedy.

JA: After World War II, several German and Polish poets asked if it were possible to go on and write poems, in other words, if it were possible to write poems after such tragic events, after Auschwitz.

PC: I am not sure how to respond as a "writer" or as a citizen of this nation or city. To be honest, I have no idea how to respond in general. The only legitimate response was to help others who were harmed more than me: a friend who lost his brother, or another friend who lived near the trade center and needed help with cleaning her apartment.

JA: Some cultural pundits have wondered if we can have irony or frivolity in literature again and my own answer would be yes -- if those are the gifts the poet had to begin with. In some ways to be too solemn is to be defeated by the horror of the event. It is not wise or tactful to do cynical work or to wallow in too much sentiment either. Some of the work I write is funny and I propose to read some of that in Santa Cruz, but will not be too unduly frivolous either. Ultimately I think a writer or poet should respond to all the kinds of experiences there are in the world.
It is interesting to learn that some people think there is a resurgence of interest in poetry. There has also been a resurgence of interest in music -- the New York Philharmonic piped a performance of Brahms' Requiem into the plaza at Lincoln Center and an enormous crowd came out to listen after the events of September 11. This is a sign that the arts are important and among the things that are at the heart of lives -- people are seeking healing and meaning and some kind of contact or reunion with powers of goodness that are beyond the merely personal.

PC: The participation in arts -- whether poetry or music -- creates a communal experience and as Jack says, people are seeking meaning in something that is larger than their own lives. Jack, have you considered leaving New York City?

JA: My answer to that question is adamantly no -- I love New York. Although I am a city person and there are other cities I could happily live in and do not like to think of myself as a snobbish New Yorker, I see no reason to leave right now.

PC: In fact, I love to think of myself as a snobbish New Yorker, and would also never consider leaving. I am one of those out-of-towners who has perhaps reinvented myself as a die-hard New Yorker. This is my home and I made up my mind a long time ago that I was never leaving, and I have not changed my mind on that matter since September 11th.

Jack Anderson and Penny Cagan will read at Louden Nelson Community Center, October 30, 2001, at 7:30 p.m.

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