Make It Digital!

An Interview with Roxana Preda on Ezra Pound and The Cantos Project

by Paula Camacho Roldán


I met Roxana Preda at the EPIC in Salamanca in June 2019, where I presented a paper on the letters of Ezra Pound to forgotten modernist Iris Barry, included in D.D. Paige’s edition, The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941. Roxana is a senior scholar of modernism specializing in the work of Ezra Pound. She received her PhD in Germany in 1997 and has been a member of staff at the University of Edinburgh since 2006. Her more recent publications include Ezra Pound and the Career of Modern Criticism (2018) and The Edinburgh Companion to Ezra Pound and the Arts (2019). She was President of the Ezra Pound Society (2013-2018) and senior editor of the society periodical Make It New during that time. In this capacity, she started her digital and editorial work by creating websites both for the society and the periodical. Her current digital work is now focused on the new annotation of Pound’s The Cantos. Her Cantos Project benefited from a Leverhulme Fellowship (2016-2021) and is now mid-way in its development.

PC: Thank you for inviting me to visit you at the University of Edinburgh and for giving me the opportunity to have this conversation with you. Roxana, I remember the day you made the most insightful comments to me on letter editing at the Salamanca conference. Among many other things, you used two verbs, “standardize” and “bowdlerize.” In what way are these two concepts important in the case of Paige’s edition of Ezra Pound’s letters?

RP: D.D. Paige’s volume of Selected Letters is a classic of scholarship and has been tremendously useful to us over the years. However, Paige had an editorial policy that is not practiced in Pound studies any longer, namely, to standardize and uniformize Pound’s typography. Pound used the typewriter in creative ways, not just in his poems but in his letters as well. He aimed at reproducing live conversation, making his ideas more vivid, showing his reader what is important by capitalization, strong indentation, line spacing. Paige standardized Pound's letter layout, which has made the poet appear much more didactic and conventional than he really was. Apart from that, some letters are not complete, so we need to be careful.

PC: Where does “bowdlerize” come from?

RP: Depending on whom he was talking to, Pound could be quite free with his vocabulary, especially when he felt at ease with a friend. When I mentioned that Paige had bowdlerized Pound’s letters, I had in mind a few addressed to William Bird in the spring of 1924, in which Ezra complained of Henry Strater’s designs for the luxury edition of A Draft of XVI Cantos, especially for canto 4, which he strongly disapproved of. Paige simply cut the juicier passages, which gives us a much tamer poet.

PC: When talking about Iris Barry, you seemed to be convinced that Pound’s letters to her are like that.

RP: Paige may have left those to Iris alone, as Pound was using a language proper to gentle conversation to young ladies. The poet preserved decorum in his letters to them, he did not talk dirty to a woman, never that I can remember.

PC: In fact, I have recently confirmed that the letters included in Paige’s book differ from those in Iris Barry biography by Robert Sitton, Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film. So we should be suspicious of Mr. Paige. Shouldn’t we?

RP: We should, insofar as we need to be suspicious of every scholarly effort. Errors are always possible, decisions are taken on policies that look fine at the time, but may be discarded or modified later. It’s true we don’t have the time to verify anyone’s results, but in principle, we should be wary not only of opinions and literary interpretations, but also of past scholarship. We should check it, whenever we can.

PC: I guess I need to see the originals “to gauge just how deadening standardization is,” as you said. Tell me, Roxana, where can we find Ezra Pound’s original letters?

RP: Most of them are in the great literary archives in the United States: the Beinecke Library in New Haven, Connecticut; the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. I don’t know about originals: the archives mostly have Pound’s own carbon copies. It is a great relief that he was so careful with almost every document he wrote and preserved carbons in his personal document collection.

PC: Are you familiar with Pound’s correspondence to women?

RP: Yes, I have come across many of them in my research. I think we need to be aware of two factors when we make generalizations about Pound's letters to women. One is the behavioral conventions of Pound’s generation and the kind of person Pound wanted to be when relating to women. Pound was born in 1885, at a time when men’s behavior was still bound by conventions of ‘chivalry’ and decorum. Pound did not want to appear boorish and rude, so his language is considerably toned down compared to that of other roles and masks he used in his correspondence with men. He does not want to offend, he does not proffer insults, he does not use slang, he is polite, even when firm or categorical in his opinions. This practice is particularly clear when one reads the correspondence with men and women together. Maybe I should modulate this to allow for his letters to Harriet Monroe, the editor of the Chicago magazine Poetry. He did not respect her as an editor, her literary taste and her life assumptions annoyed him exceedingly. So, he insulted her openly, especially in their correspondence of the 1930s. He told her directly what he thought of her, with no gloves. But even in this case, he preserved decorum. Needless to say, Harriet gave back as much as she got, she was no wallflower herself.

As a rule of thumb, we may affirm that Pound’s language is particularly tailored to the letter recipient and thus shifts significantly, sometimes quite dramatically from a correspondent to another. Even with a single correspondent, it shifts in time.

The second generalization we might make is that Pound professionalizes correspondence. He is not interested in the chitchat of his personal daily life, so his letters contain few mundane details. He writes to someone because he wants to discuss topics of interest and those are always relevant to his work in some way. He discusses business at hand, the business relevant to his intellectual life.

PC: You have told me that at the Beinecke you discovered the exchange with Olga Rudge, which was useful for The Cantos Project. What can you tell me about those letters and the language used by Pound? Gentle? Conventional? Full of drama?

RP: The letters to Olga were a surprise indeed, as they were in some sense different from other letters to women (and somewhat similar to his letters to Dorothy). To judge by sheer bulk, Pound and Olga did not see each other too often and sustained their relationship by writing short letters almost daily. In such cases, yes, mundane details like ‘I played tennis today’ or ‘I met so-and-so’ do crop up. But the professionalization I was mentioning earlier occurs here as well, as Olga was a helper of first resort. She was the first reader of cantos as Pound was writing them; she was expected to warn him when or if she had difficulties understanding them; she also routinely received copies. I remember chuckling to myself at Beinecke when she queried a passage in canto 37: The lines were: “Two words, said Mr Van Buren, came in with our revolution/ and, as a matter of fact, why are we really sent here ?” (By “here” van Buren meant the U.S. Senate.) “Which were the two words?” Olga innocently asked. Well, as an American, she should have known, yet the answer did not cross her mind at the time. The words are “taxation” and “representation.” It was not unreasonable for Pound to assume they would be clear more generally, but especially to an educated American. As to canto 38, the correspondence reveals that Pound rewrote the poem as a response to Olga’s reading. I have included relevant passages from these letters in the “Calendar of composition” section of my Cantos Project.

PC: Was he a promoter or a paternalist?

RP: Well, I suppose if an artist has a mentor, she has to decide what kind she wants. Does she want a strong figure who tells her what to do when she is disoriented and has yet to find her way, or a weak figure who tells her she is a genius and will figure it out by herself eventually? I guess each artist has to decide.

His relationships to other women writers cannot be considered in bulk, or by picking just one example. Pound’s attitude to Gertrude Stein, for example, was way different from his interaction with, say, Marianne Moore. We also have to remember a relationship is a two-way street. Pound’s relationship with Stein was adversarial and that had a lot to do with Stein’s own character and expectations. Marianne Moore, on the other hand, enjoyed high esteem from both Eliot and Pound for her poetry. They treated one another respectfully, as equals. Promotion… also goes both ways. Stein promoted Pound indirectly by making him a character in her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. She obviously wanted to demean him by saying he was a “village explainer, useful if you are a village, but otherwise, not.” Well, this is also a promotion, even if negatively meant. Stein’s quip took on a life of its own and helped fashion a certain image of Pound, the man and the poet. It helped me greatly, personally, because I realized early on that I was certainly a village and would not mind an explainer, even if I didn’t always agree with his topics and ideas. In her Lectures in America and the Autobiography, Stein was a village explainer too, but she never explained anything other than herself. Moore, on the other hand, did important positive promotion for Pound’s poem when she published reviews of The Cantos in Eliot’s magazine, The Criterion.

PC: A feminist or a misogynist?

RP: Pound has a very bad reputation among feminists. He was called a “male chauvinist pig” in the latest book publication, Approaches to Teaching Ezra Pound (MLA 2021, p.38), as if this is an established ‘fact.’ I would like to introduce a note of moderation to this issue. Pound always respected and loved artists, male or female, this cannot be overemphasized. He supported them whenever he could, even the moderate talents, like, say, Ralph C. Dunning, Emanuel Carnevali or Heinz Henghes. From this follows that Pound genuinely respected a woman for her artistic work, whenever he felt it showed merit or promise. This is evident with the women closest to him, Dorothy Shakespear and Olga Rudge. Neither of them achieved great prestige as artists, yet Pound supported them both. He gave Dorothy a direction in her art by involving her in illustration for his various literary projects. She made covers for Ripostes in 1912 and Catholic Anthology in 1915, designed capitals for the edition of A Draft of XXX Cantos in 1930. Dorothy worked on paper for a lifetime, that was the material support she chose as an artist. It was important to her to ‘publish’ her work, not, say, exhibit it, or sell it to a museum.

The ways Pound supported Olga’s career are even better known. He told George Antheil to write violin compositions for her to play when they met in 1923. She was involved in Pound’s opera, Le Testament throughout the 1920s. Then she performed in the Rapallo concerts from 1933 to 1939. These concerts were Ezra’s idea, to give her venues and opportunities to play and get her out of both depression and poverty. He was aware, for instance, that Olga was often discouraged and did not practice enough. He mentioned it a few times in his letters, but never made a fuss, nagged, or threatened her. He wrote daily and was always affectionate. And when she took up the Vivaldi project in 1936, he was enthusiastic and supported her all the way: he advertised in the Townsman, copied concerts from manuscript, and organized seminars. I find these instances an admirable and sincere form of long-term support.

PC: Let us talk now about your digital work, The Cantos Project. Some scholars, such as Tim Redman, or William Cole as well as Patricia Cockram (1997) proposed hypertext as a model of reading The Cantos. Why?

RP: The Cantos is the only long poem I can think of that can be profitably conceived as a virtual network of information. Pound was convinced that knowledge is fragmentary and incomplete – the poem’s collage method reflects that. Confronted with a poem that emulates an encyclopaedia, an archive, or a university, readers who are passionate about a subject will skip the parts they are not interested in and follow their topic. Such a reader might jump from a node to another in the network Pound proposes. Say someone is interested in ‘Italian history’ and will follow the details that Pound includes across various cantos. Hypertext presupposes a reader following his subject of interest through various digital instances of related information: it is a useful critical concept for reading the poem.

PC: As you recount in your article “The Temple and the Scaffolding: The Cantos of Ezra Pound and Digital Culture” (2019), a digital annotated edition of the poem was already a desirable goal among Pound scholars at the end of the 20th century. However, copyright restrictions were a problem and the technology of the 1990s was not advanced enough. When did the situation begin to improve?

RP: I think the situation began to improve with the introduction of the idea of “platform” at the beginning of the new millennium. A platform is a bundle of pre-formatted software allowing even lay people to create websites. The platform I use for the Cantos Project is called Joomla, and was first developed in 2005. Now it has reached version 4.0, so it has developed quite a bit on its own over the years, taking my own project with it through layers and layers of updates. The digital presentation of a poem of such magnitude as The Cantos requires fairly sophisticated software, which was not yet available in the 1990s, when the technology for projects in the humanities was still primitive and very fluid, with no long-term stability. Prof. Richard Taylor, who was a pioneer of digital Pound studies, had to confront this situation quite painfully and wrote about it in a fascinating essay called “The Tragi-Comical History of the Variorum Project and Its Betrayal” (2005) which was extremely useful to me when I started out around 2014. The situation had begun to improve after 2010, with the emergence of digital studies in the universities. That made my project possible and even allowed young people with an interest in technology to encode The Cantos in TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) and write dissertations based on the new ideas and critical dilemmas that encoding made possible. These dissertations were concrete instances where technology replaced theory as a framework for new critical ideas on the poem. But copyright restrictions are still operating and an obstacle to a critical edition, print or digital.

PC: In 2014, with your design of The Cantos Project platform, a digital research environment for the poem was created. Tell me about the first steps and decisions, from copyright issues to the choice of Joomla among the different platforms.

RP: There were a lot of fruitful negotiations with the Pound Trust at New Directions regarding the presentation of the cantos text. There were three conditions: only six cantos to be presented on the website at any one time (later extended to twelve); peer review in a scholarly board; and “depth,” meaning that the reader had to go through four links to get from homepage to the poem text. These requirements were crucial in my design of the website. Joomla was a very congenial platform, as it operated with concepts that I already knew, such as “article” and “category.” I found it thus easier to accept than competing platforms such as Wordpress or Drupal, which used an unfamiliar vocabulary for their various functions. It gave me a feeling of security; besides, Joomla is fairly easy to learn and flexible. Developers all over the world are creating additional software for it all the time.

PC: What does digital annotation consist of? How is it different from annotation in the print medium? Does it create new problems or solve the old ones?

RP: As a new kid on the block, I was very sensitive to the criticisms that Terrell’s Companion (A Companion to The Cantos 1980, 1984) had received in the reviews of his work. In every decision I took, I tried to respond to these. I can’t list all of them here, but I can focus on one which I felt to be essential, the idea that what counts most and absolutely needs to be preserved is the reader’s experience of the poem. The website itself, my presentation of the text and my annotation should not interfere and make this experience even more difficult than it’s bound to be. Less distraction and clutter on the poem page; bring up the annotation only if and when readers feel they need it; encourage the reader to stay on the page and read the canto to the end, not flit about and click on links. If at all possible, leave the reader alone with the poet. My annotation is, at the end of the day, academic, and very detailed. It is designed for future Pound scholars, bearing in mind that if they want to learn Pound, they will be alone, as I was when I started out.

PC: What about the critical apparatus on your platform, where can readers find it?

RP: Well, there was a lot of reading and brooding involved in the beginning, long walks in solitude where I tried to visualize and plan out how I would manage the information on the website, what was the best way to proceed, given the constraints I was given. Between my walks and the library, I realized that John Whittier Ferguson’s idea of ‘framing’ was particularly amenable to a digital adaptation. He published a book, Framing Pieces: Designs of the Gloss in Joyce, Woolf and Pound in 1997. Ferguson argued that in his criticism, Pound himself provided a running critical commentary to The Cantos that acted like a ‘frame’ to the poem. I instinctively agreed with this idea and asked myself how to provide a similar running gloss on my website. This is how I came to offer the critical apparatus as a ‘framing architecture’ to the poem, a sort of container that is available in the wings, yet does not intrude on the reader’s experience. It shows up in the title pages at section and canto levels, as well as in the side menus.

PC: As you have written, “in the question of annotating Pound, we stand on the shoulders of giants.” What would you say is the annotator’s main responsibility?

RP: Correct, relevant, comprehensive annotation is tremendously important to Pound studies. While working on it, I became ever more persuaded that the poem cannot be studied in the university, as institutions of higher learning are not tailored to cope with The Cantos in meaningful ways. The poem is too long and complex to be studied in class: it requires elite programs to be approached at all, even superficially. I was honored to teach in such a program: two full semesters on The Cantos with weekly lectures and seminars in Berlin, at the Kennedy Institute for American Studies in 2002-2003. I am particularly grateful to Prof. Heinz Ickstadt, who made it possible at the time. My only regret is that it happened too early in my career and in all probability I won’t get a second chance at a teaching environment that good. I suppose my intense wish to annotate The Cantos and thus become a virtual teacher to the world, derives from that experience. I cannot replicate that singular event, but at least I can make it possible that people who want to study The Cantos on their own, wherever they are, and without the privilege of an elite university or a mentor, will find in my Cantos Project the virtual, one-on-one tutoring session they need. In many ways, what I do is what my main predecessor Carroll F. Terrell did. He provided a Companion to the Cantos that proved to be the textbook of every Pound scholar. I simply improve on this foundation for the digital era and make use of the comprehensive tools that have become available since its final publication date in 1984.

PC: “The annotator is like a photographer adjusting his camera lens to get from a blurry impression to a sharp picture.” I like this metaphor of yours. Can you develop it?

RP: Just the other day, I came across a page in canto 96 where the poetry is presented in three columns: the first contains a few words in Greek; the second has a sort of telegraphic comment in English; the third is a text in Chinese characters. How are we supposed to even read such a text? I greatly admire the first generation of Pound scholars: they were confronted with poems that were exceedingly forbidding, the degree of difficulty was just huge. And yet, they didn’t dismiss the poem; they didn’t avoid it on political grounds, but set to work, elucidating the difficulties. They did not yet see clearly what The Cantos ‘meant,’ or why Pound chose this method and not another to get his meaning across. Yet, they were not intimidated and pushed on bravely and honestly, in the belief that the meaning will become clear over time. We owe Carroll F. Terrell and Hugh Kenner a huge debt, as they made comprehension possible in the first instance. But this comprehension is either one of details, or of watered-down generality, it does not necessarily mean we have ‘understood’ a canto, any canto. Indeed, attempting to understand and analyze a canto per se, as a poetic unit in a network, is a fairly new concept. Certainly, scholars interested in specific cantos have written essays devoted to them, but no one has done this systematically with all cantos. This approach is contemporary, only a handful of scholars and editors, myself included, are a part of it. This will become evident if we look at the publication dates of relevant, partial projects in this research trend: Alex Howard’s collective volume on Thrones and Richard Parker’s collection of essays Readings in the Cantos vol. I were both published in 2018. By focusing on a single canto in turn, be it through annotation or interpretation, we are taking the blurry picture we have inherited and clarifying it to push our understanding forward.

PC: Can readers edit your work?

RP: When I started out, I believed that any reader might profitably make contributions, it was an idea current around 2014, very much influenced by the success and popularity of Wikipedia. Meanwhile, I have seen just how specialized the knowledge of Pound’s annotator needs to be. If anyone wants to write annotations, he or she needs to write to me first, so we can discuss concretely what the contributor would like to do. I am grateful for any contact and offer; quite a few of them were made this way. Then, readers can certainly write to me to call my attention to errors or demand a supplement. I take personal pride in my swift response – small edits and corrections are made on the day I receive the message. Some readers have suggested larger operations: Archie Henderson, for instance, proposed a searchable table of Chinese characters that occur in the poem; he provided the software and initial input for this feature. I am still working on it, and will make it available very soon. Another reader, Leopold Green, suggested I gather the canto audio readings in one place, so potential listeners can more easily browse and choose. I think the idea is very useful and I will certainly create such a space after I finish the Chinese character table.

PC: As a mediator between the writer (Pound) and the reader, your own reading of Pound’s poem must have been very deep. How demanding is the study and annotation of The Cantos?

RP: The poem is much deeper than I ever imagined it would be. My personal experience of annotating it was that of an intellectual adventurer walking an overgrown path in the wilderness: surprises and challenges everywhere. I did not come to the poem as a beginner. I had read it once with Terrell’s annotation, and twice without. I also had years of experience in Pound studies to back me up, a full year of teaching it, as I mentioned. And still, as I was working, I began to feel that we did not understand the poem at all. I felt disarmed and vulnerable, as I confronted enigmas and surprises everywhere. After starting work with a great deal of confidence in my abilities, education, and intelligence and while I still believe in them, I have also learned humility. The poem forced me to get involved in all sorts of crash courses to supplement what I already knew. Not only that – the crash courses had to be embedded in knowledge of a larger cultural context, so I could think about and evaluate Pound’s method through the terms it provided. Each section of the poem presented a new challenge, as Pound changed the rules, and nothing already familiar continued to apply. The learning curve is inordinately steep every time but particularly so at the start of a new section.

PC: This is all very general – can you give an example?

RP: Well, I can give you the most recent one. Sometime at the start of 2020, I had to tackle cantos 52-71, informally called the China and Adams Cantos. It is a 20-canto section conceived as a diptych, ten cantos devoted to China and ten to Adams, fair enough, nothing new there. In order to write the first ten cantos, Pound used a French history of China in eleven volumes. Fine. The source was online, and I can read French easily, no difficulty there. Additionally, I had tremendous help from the past. A scholar of Pound and China, John Nolde, (Blossoms from the East, 1985) located, quoted and translated all the passages in the source that Pound used; Terrell (Companion to The Cantos 1980) had extensive annotation; and Achilles Fang (Materials for the Study of Pound’s Cantos, 1958) offered a line-by-line reading, drawing attention to all possible errors and pitfalls. So why was it so difficult for me to get through the Chinese history cantos? Because as a responsible annotator I needed to learn Chinese history for myself, appropriate a simpler version of it, if you will, so as to start asking relevant questions. The cantos forced me to go through a crash course in Chinese history, geography, and writing, which I needed to extend on my own, beyond the material presented in the poem. The China cantos tell the story up until 1780. But then, what happened in China from 1780 until Pound’s time of writing, 1938? This also belongs, as a tacit background to writing, it was part of what Pound knew and took for granted. Why did he decide to include a history of China into the poem in the first place? That was exceedingly odd, as up until then, there were just two cantos devoted to Chinese material, 13 and 49, and neither of them was historical per se. Is the time of composition relevant, was Pound possibly reacting to an unforeseen event? And why did he structure the telling of the China cantos the way he did? How ‘American’ was he in telling China’s story? What was the significance of these cantos to the poem as a whole? Did they inaugurate something, or were they just an oddity, a black swan event? I find answering these more general questions to be part of my burden as an annotator. I can’t just focus on the details - I need to understand the poem, only in this way will my annotation be relevant and useful.

PC: How should The Cantos be read today?

RP: I think the poem should be read with understanding. I grant you this sounds like a stale cliché, yet people do try to read it without understanding, then are quickly disappointed, give up, and invariably blame the poet. By and large, readers are discouraged because they can’t cope with either the poem’s method or its ideas. The method is too fragmentary – if the poem had an overall story, like a conventional epic, people would be more drawn to it. But The Cantos does not offer that – rather a multiplicity of vignettes, striking images, and verbal tokens that the reader has to correlate in a meaningful way. Besides, anecdotes, even if short, are never complete, or in their standard school versions, which is an additional problem. Then, of course, readers have to cope with foreign languages at every step. Pound may have hoped that they will get used to them in time and not fuss too much. But then, coping with foreign languages has become harder, not easier, as time went on. Readers have also got to deal with long cantos, a poetic practice that goes against the standard expectations that a poem should be lyrical and short. Moreover, as a consequence of technological change, people are now used to watching and browsing, whereas poetry demands focused concentration and slow reading. While The Cantos might have taken the invention of the radio in stride and used its assumptions in introducing  dramatic, disembodied voices, it was largely composed before television changed the horizon of our perceptions, attention span, and willingness to make an effort. All these difficulties of method make reading The Cantos very problematic today, when what was inaugurated by television is only exacerbated by our daily use of computers and cell phones. Potential readers need to believe that beyond all the hardship, there is treasure that cannot be obtained otherwise. They also have to be comparatively deaf to all the voices telling them there is no treasure, just some abstruse trivia a Fascist and irresponsible intellectual impostor has gathered from everywhere and dropped pell-mell into the text to make it ‘look’ interesting. A reader needs to be led by an intuition of value and sheer faith to get to the ideas in the first place. Then, of course, courage to face them, discernment, and educated, objective evaluation, as these are definitely not mainstream ideas, nothing you learn in school. The Cantos is a poem for intellectuals, or people who want to become them. Pound hoped that readers who have curiosity more generally will also find it useful and accept it.

PC: Then… Why did you accept it, what treasure, if any, did you find?

RP: Well, I’m arrogant, as I pointed out before. Challenges and difficulties exhilarated me when I read The Cantos for the first time. Instead of saying, “oh, an elitist poem, what a bore!” my first reaction was “cool! excellent, finally something interesting to read!” See, this is awareness of treasure right there, even if just as a vague intuition at the start. I was not intimidated, on the contrary, I thought I was perfectly equipped to make sense of the poem and gain from it. I might be excused for this panache, I was 25 at the time. You ask what it gave me and whether it was worthwhile. It made me aware that I was not simply this budding intellectual who knew a little of everything – I was a literary scholar and had serious limitations by virtue of who I was. To be focused on literature and practice it as a profession, one might well choose to be  ignorant in the matters of real life, and the other fields of the humanities and social sciences like history, politics, and economics that deal with it. Without them, how can someone assess her own place in the world, and be a thinking person? As Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I needed to get out of myself to think intelligently about who I was and what my potential for experience amounted to – the poem gave me the tools and sheer daring to do that. The old quip: “literature makes nothing happen” does not apply to The Cantos. Knowledgeable readers are all changed and enriched by it, in various ways, one individual at a time.

PC: Which place does Ezra Pound’s work occupy in today’s Modernist studies? Do you think he receives the recognition he deserves?

RP: Up until the 1980s, the balance was in favor of the idea that Pound was central to modernism. This idea, particularly advanced and argued in Hugh Kenner’s books, ruled in the period of my own formation as a scholar. Throughout my life, I have never doubted it – if anything, by studying and teaching other authors of the 20th century, British, European, and American, I became even more persuaded of Pound’s importance. However, there are two main ideas that push against it. One is that Pound was a Fascist and a horrible human being: an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a tyrant. Who needs to be infected with such ideas and attitudes? We pride ourselves in our morality and clean, generous politics. The result of this moral evaluation is that new modernist studies have disintegrated the idea of Pound’s centrality by focusing on other authors, and dispersing the multiplicity of roles he had throughout his life, say, as critic, editor, promoter, researcher, by studying them separately, in the context of other topics. This of course permitted researchers to not deal with his poetry at all, even to assume that his poetry is not important. The other idea that works against Pound is that he was crazy, especially from 1945 onwards and possibly even before that. This particular reputation was artificially created in the American courts and institutions of mental health at the end of WWII to cope with the fact that Pound had spoken against the American involvement in the European war at the Rome radio between 1941 and 1943. It led of course to a similar result – who would read the late poetry of an old lunatic, especially if he was a Fascist? Everyone glancing through Rock Drill (1955) and Thrones (1959) could see from the start that they ‘made no sense’ at all. To conclude, I think that the process of Pound’s disparagement as a literary figure on political grounds, including that of race and gender, has been extremely successful. A lot of scholars think he is “niche” or “minor,” in short, not worth bothering about. As time goes by, there are fewer students willing and able to engage with a difficult poet whose reputation is in such shambles, especially as academia becomes ever more politicized. So, to answer your question: Pound does not get the recognition he deserves, mainly because as we apply the political goggles to him, we avoid studying his poetry, or disparage it in the partial understanding we might achieve. Most scholars know the current slogans and simply steer clear. Rumors have it that writing about Pound’s work is liable to ruin academic career prospects – so sheer fear and elementary precaution also need to be counted into the picture.

PC: How has the pandemic affected archival research and digitalization?

RP: The pandemic has considerably slowed down the publication of books dedicated to Pound. It has also blocked research projects because scholars are not able to access archives in person. Occasionally, I have been able to make a virtue out of hardship by appealing to library curators for specific information; or appealing to my scholars’ network to help me access a book or an article. On the other side of an email are real people who understand and help, I am extremely grateful for that.

PC: Apart from this work or as a result of it, are you engaged in a full monograph on the whole Cantos?

RP: Well, I do have a detailed plan for a monograph in my files. It grows on the basis of the annotation I write. I am familiar with Pound’s economic ideas and find them in the poem at every step. Other monographs on Pound’s economics do not take the poem into account, they rely mainly on his journalism and letters. But Pound included in his cantos the ideas he felt were good ‘for eternity’; he took greater care with his statements and relied only on his certainties. I have found that the economics in the poem is quite different from the one we are already familiar with. But as I am only halfway through the cantos with my annotation, the monograph will have to wait and be reshaped with every new section I annotate. I am particularly wary about how later cantos are going to illuminate the economic ideas of the earlier ones. I have only reached position 64, so I still have a long way to go.

PC: Thank you, Roxana, for this conversation.