Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

Jed Rasula
Interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson

JMW:Since presenting your talk “The Futility of Anthologies” at the Modern Languages Association Conference, what’s changed in the scene of American poetry anthologies?

JR:That talk was given after I’d finished writing The American Poetry Wax Museum but before it was published, so my polemical intention was to give a fairly blunt reduction of perspectives addressed at great length there. It was a kind of oral flyer for the book. (Wax itself had its inception, by the way, in another talk I’d given at the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in 1991, called “Anthologists’ Ontologies.”) I fully expected that the usual doorstoppers in the anthology market would continue to gush forth after Wax appeared in 1996, but it seems instead that I was perched on a promontory gazing down at a ruined city. In retrospect, it’s clear that the acceleration of internet access and activity was radically altering the way people learned about poetry, as well as putting a serious damper on the publishing industry—and soon the toggles of Amazon would effectively short-circuit the moribund apparatus of Ivy League/Manhattan cultural authority. It wasn’t until 2011 that an ambitious new anthology on the old model appeared, by which point Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry seemed truly anachronistic.

The anthology market has always been flush with special interest titles, with the purportedly neutral compilations based on “excellence” riding sidecar as another kind of special interest—titles for the classroom, generally, as opposed to titles for the browser, the hiker, the seeker, even the baseball aficionado. As far as I can tell, the market for those sorts of anthologies has never hit a bump. The canonical anthologies, on the other hand, face increasingly daunting demographic challenges of the sort I broached in a keynote address a few years ago at a conference in China (“The Condition of Poetry When Everybody is a Poet”), and mulled over at greater length in a conversation with Mike Chasar, “Glut Reactions: The Demographics of American Poetry” in Boston Review online (posted 28 November 2012). How do you slice a “representative sample” of genuinely Whitmanian multitudes? In the heyday of the 1960 anthology wars, Donald Allen could make a damning rebuke to the establishment with an anthology made up entirely of excluded poets (Olson, Duncan, Creeley, Ginsberg, Snyder, Ashbery, O’Hara—!); but an anthology today might be compelling even confining itself to a sample of 2%; and any putative canonical gathering is destined to disappoint and frustrate at least 98% of interested and/or informed parties. What was striking about the two anthologies of ecopoetics I reviewed in Chicago Review earlier this year (“The Genius of the Place is ‘Was’”) is that they were both huge, each was interesting in its own terms, and the overlap in contents was ridiculously small. This strikes me as definitive proof that all the old expectations imposed on anthologies have no footing now. Any further claims about “the best” of “our” doozies will be embarrassing, since they can only mean, in effect, in my crowd the kingpins are X, Y and Z (a.k.a. my friends are cool, they ♥ me).

JMW:Did you ever think you’d join the fray and be editing something like Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity?

JR:I like your choice of the word fray, which is exactly what I tried to avoid with the two anthologies I’ve done, in that both of them circumvent the living. Of course the parameters set by the concept behind Imagining Language allowed for some living authors (Christian Bök, Michael Winkler, Beth Learn, Madeline Gins, maybe a few others), but it steered so far afield from the aesthetic criteria of canonical anthology making that their inclusion had no implications of any corresponding exclusion. And that’s the basis of what I’m calling the canonical anthology, the stakes of which most recently erupted around Paul Hoover’s revised edition of Postmodern American Poetry. Any anthology of living contributors will end up coming across like a private club with a guest list, with the editor as bouncer. It’s a thankless task, and one I’ve deliberately stayed away from. Admittedly, that took some fortitude, since I once fancied myself a suitably eclectic reader of the poetry scene, unique in my ability to relish work by incompatible sensibilities and groups, and therefore more responsibly positioned than most anthologists. Fortunately, I recognized that the business of the canonical anthology is to venture wolfish truth claims in the meek demeanor of sheep’s wool. The idiosyncrasies I could run with in Imagining Language and Burning City would simply disable the checks and balances presumed to be operative in a canonical anthology.

The formative revelation for me when I was just out of college was the more or less simultaneous appearance of America a Prophecy edited by Jerry Rothenberg and George Quasha, and Donald Hall’s updated Penguin Contemporary American Poetry. Hall was programmatically unprogrammatic, secure in the pretence that “excellence” simply swims up to the editorial hook and takes the bait. America a Prophecy, by contrast, was like a parade of drag queens out of a John Waters film. Against all the odds of idiosyncrasy stacked upon idiosyncrasy, it somehow managed to stake grand claims and open vistas; while Hall’s collection felt like some wonky police lineup, in which winners were picked instead of culprits, but all the winners got was a handshake and “we’ll be in touch” before exiting to the parking deck. Needless to say, it was the spirit pioneered by Rothenberg (in all his anthologies) that spoke to me, offering a model for compendia that could be approached like actual compositions. The old model of The Judgment of Paris was annulled if you thought of the enterprise as something more like putting together a carnival than carving a monument.

I think it’s imperative for an editor to don the prospective contents of an anthology like a mask. There’s something ritual, ceremonial, about the enterprise. Otherwise it’s a bit like being in Congress and playing to special interests. If you’re thinking all the while that X has to be included, it’s like thinking you have to pony up to a major campaign donor. And that’s where the corruption sets in. The American Poetry Wax Museum started out as a kind of investigative reporting on the practice of anthologists, and I concluded that for the most part they should be ashamed of themselves. Anthologists rarely do original work or sleuthing, they just skim contents off other anthologies. This situation has arisen, I presume, because of the lucrative market share of anthologies as textbooks, so the actual activity involved in editing them has gone largely unconsidered, certainly from an ethical perspective. Anthologists have had the kind of free ride given to Federal contractors once the bid’s been approved. Whether it’s a thousand bucks for an ashtray or yet another turn around the ring for “The Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell, it’s a case of passing the buck.

JMW:In your introduction you write that “Burning City offers the reader a journey commensurate with the challenge and exhilaration of early Modernism, a crisscrossing of continents and oceans.” Can you discuss how this idea came about and how you and your coeditor Tim Conley worked to gather the texts for Burning City?

JR:My original intention, for which I got a substantial Canadian grant, was to compile a portfolio of modernist visual poetry. A year into it I got the Lanier Chair at the University of Georgia and had to forfeit the remaining two years of the grant (which could only be administered through a Canadian institution). But already by then my research had tapped into such a tantalizing array of poems that didn’t fit the “visual” criteria that I was relieved, in a way, to have some breathing room to reconsider my intentions. The practical basis of the research involved going through all the available issues of the modernist journals I could find in any language, just to see what was there. It’s admittedly a bit batty to spend days trawling through journals you can’t read, but because I’d originally gone in search of visual poems—anything typographically or graphically distinctive—linguistic impediments receded. I gradually took an interest in the predominance of visual art in these journals, the inclusion of which was clearly designed to facilitate international exchange among interested parties for whom the language barriers might be otherwise insurmountable. But it also became apparent that French and German often played a mediating role (and, less frequently, English), so that gave me a foothold in something I could work with. As years of this sleuthing went by, I accumulating stacks of photocopies which I began sorting in various ways, and when the stacks became truly ungainly I realized that, as had happened before with Imagining Language, I was well embarked on a potentially unending project, and the most expedient way to envision an ending was to get a co-editor. Tim, then (as now) a professor at Brock University in Canada, had once been my doctoral student. His dissertation on Joyce was so brilliant it was published within a year of the degree. His orientation was more fiction than poetry, but his general interest in modernism and his rare ability to quickly assimilate anything made him seem right. By the time Tim signed on, I’d already gathered much of what’s in Burning City, but buried in reams of similar material, so the editorial labor we undertook together was more in the nature of extraction and refinement—though he did come up with some real finds on his own. The greatest challenge was envisioning an overall design. The “crisscrossing” motif you ask about was arrived at only in this later stage of inducing the heap to reveal an underlying pattern.

JMW:Like Technicians of the Sacred and perhaps Shaking the Pumpkin, too, the format of the codex itself would seem like an inherently limiting technology for the kinds of works that Burning City presents. What were the challenges you faced in terms of the size and scope of these texts? What of the typographical and permissions wrangling as well, which are notorious spirit-killers to any anthologist?

JR:The cornucopia of materials under consideration was so exorbitant, really, that the usually stressful “spirit-killers” were hardly in play. In fact, in only two cases (Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes) were the fees so outlandish that we had no choice but to pass (on all but one poem by Hughes, since that’s all we could afford). However, I agree that the very format of the book appears somewhat anachronistic given the juggernaut we put into play with Burning City—though I also bear in mind that everything in the anthology was a product of print culture. I do wonder how avidly those we focused on would have foregone print altogether if our current media environment had been available then. Probably most of them. An open-form, ongoing internet version of Burning City sounds tantalizing to me now, though we never really considered it along the way, mainly because the inception went back to the late Nineties when the web was clunky compared to now. There’s a hive of images I’ve used in Powerpoint presentations on the anthology, few of which were options for the book (without making it a very different book, vastly more expensive and complicated to produce); and since I’ve found most of them online, I assume there wouldn’t be a problem using them to set up a kind of internet data-bank to supplement the print text, but I expect the thorny part would be wrangling a new round of permissions. Because Tim and I had a substantial grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (which had previously supported Imagining Language), the gnarly business of wrangling and paying for permissions was nicely supported; but without another grant, I doubt either of us would be inclined to start that round up again.

JMW:I consider myself one of the strange ones in that I love anthologies, love poems next to unlike poets, and the myriad oddities that an anthology can present me with. I recently got a copy of Robert Pinsky’s new Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying With the Masters. I quote the subtitle in full because of that unsubtle word Masters: to my surprise, the very first poem in the book is “Why I am Not a Painter” by Frank O’Hara. What do you make of the shift in aesthetics in what Charles Bernstein calls “Official Verse Culture”? Have anthologies had a role in this or are they just late to game, gathering up what’s pre-approved well after the fact?

JR:There shouldn’t be anything strange about loving anthologies, at least those that offer the constant frisson of unexpected encounters and unforeseeable juxtapositions. Given the young age at which most of us encounter anthologies, almost anyone fits that bill at an impressionable moment. And therein lies the danger. To deal with an anthology, part of the equation is figuring out what sort of backhanded maneuvers and backroom deals have gone into it. But that’s not likely to occur to a teenager or college student. The first anthology of note for me (age 15) was Oscar Williams’ Pocket Anthology of Modern Verse. As I read and memorized and parsed and indulged, I gradually became perplexed by the inclusion of certain poets who seemed not quite on a par with the rest, and one of them was a woman named Gene Derwood. Eventually (many years later) I discovered she was the editor’s wife. By that point I’d discovered the extent of insider trading in the field, so it wasn’t a shock but a welcome explanation of the lingering mystery of Gene Derwood (who never, as far as I could discern, appeared in any anthology not edited by Williams, but he did so many that it made his wife a figment of poetic possibility for a while). I offer this as an instance of what might be learned as an unintended consequence.

As for OVC, to give it a faintly gynecological acronym, I think that has less to do with anthologies than with the market; and where poetry is concerned the market has long been dominated by brand name/name recognition, with unpredictable lurches into the contents of poems themselves. One reason “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” was the most anthologized postwar American poem is its brevity, and another was that Jarrell was on the “A” list (not really for his poetry, but as a respected critic and confidant in the Age of Lowell). Another problem is that often the people invited to do anthologies in the trade and textbook market are the literary equivalent of Washington beltway insiders. It’s a system that drove Pound and Jeffers nuts. Publishers like to tout proper credentials, but there’s nothing in the historical record to persuade me that this procedure amounts to anything more than cronyism, pandering, and plain old laziness.* It would make a real difference to see an anthology edited by someone who (1) actually read all the poems by each of the contributors, (2) and had the courage of conviction to omit the obvious must haves to make way for others. I’ve recently been rereading the late David Bromige, for instance, and am struck with the realization that he’s one of the least anthologized poets around. Ken Irby’s another one, and Joanne Kyger, and—: but don’t get me started. Even to cite names of the excluded, though, is a reminder that the canon is a kind of Almanach de Gotha, sifting out the royal wheat from the plebian chaff.

It’s a bummer to have to keep on harping about the grim consequences of canonical anthologies, so let me end with some thoughts on the habits behind them. I think an anthology, like any compilation of textual material, should be informative. But consider the kinds of information commonly packaged in anthologies: poet X was born here, educated there, published this and that, and has been awarded the following prizes. Why should author notes mimic Who’s Who or a CV? Then there’s the matter of organization: neither an alphabetic sequence nor one by birth date tells you anything more meaningful than an arrangement by height, or hair color. This practice tends to relegate the poems themselves to extended quotations, supporting documents in a job application file. Way back in 1917 Alfred Stieglitz proposed that the Society of Independent Artists (the organization that refused to exhibit Duchamp’s “Fountain”) exhibit works without the artist’s names. In This Compost I rarely identified the quotes by author (though the sources can be located in the back of the book), a procedure that arose from the thought experiment of a nameless immersion in poetry. A genuinely ecumenical anthology would be one in which the roll call apparatus was disbanded so that the actual contents could assume a different form. There are poets who have written one or at most two poems almost any editor would find appealing, but they’re excluded because, in effect, there’s no name to go with the poems. Yet their exclusion impoverishes the potential of the anthology. Also, the editorial apportionment of space imposes a leveling effect, so you’ll find that most anthologies include only poems of a certain length. Because anthologists have proven consistently helpless in the presence of long poems and sequences, a subliminal form hypnotically emanates from the heap, a form derisively known now as the “workshop lyric.” It’ll never be done, but try to imagine an anthology in which Ashbery’s Three Poems would be included, squatting brazenly in the middle of everything like a Mayan tutelary statue. Even a modest gesture along those lines would unsettle the aesthetic template perpetuated by anthologies. A final consideration is nationality. The traditional segregation of British from American makes a certain cultural sense, I suppose. But it cuts closer to home when we consider Canada, in which the culture and language is very nearly “American.” Back in the nineties when Anne Carson burst on the scene, I thought Aha! it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out: a Canadian, published by New Directions and Knopf in New York, with boosters like Susan Sontag behind her. Will anthologists twist and squirm at having to exclude her on the basis of nationality? I notice her citizenship is now being overlooked, a fact that drives home once again how closely the canonical industry is tied to Fifth Avenue. Will Lisa Robertson be next? Probably not. Even though she strikes me as central to any appraisal of “contemporary poetry,” her sole American title is from University of California Press, and that’s not enough to cut through the border tape for anthologists.


* Imagist poet Richard Aldington complained about this in the introduction to his Complete Poems in 1948: “anthologists have the very bad habit of choosing from former anthologies,” he writes, “instead of making their own choices” (13-14).
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