What is the work of an Anthology Editor?
I think that all depends on what type of book you want to put together. Often, I view an anthology as an argument—“these are the poems I as anthology editor deem worthy of fitting into X category. They are the best examples of X.” An editor, when placed in such a position, is then viewing the poems within the anthology as qualifiers for their argument. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and in fact, a lot of times I think anthologies with this sort of approach are great teaching tools.
That wasn’t the approach we took in compiling the work. Because there wasn’t any type of anthology of the sort before ours, we wanted to create a teaching tool for use in our classes. So in our case, the role we adopted as editors was that of archivists. We wanted to collect and catalog as many types of persona poems being written at the moment as we could gather and afford.
What you were hoping to accomplish, more broadly?
Stacey had the idea for the persona anthology, and she ran it by me, noting that there wasn’t any sort of publication that extensively collected and examined persona poem work. After scouring archives, the Internet, etc., I realized she was right and agreed to help her co-edit the anthology. We both wanted something somewhat hefty—something very comprehensive, but soon realized how monumental such a task was, what with permissions from various presses as well as seeking permissions from estates and trusts. In the end, Stacey and I agreed that the best way to approach the anthology was to solicit poems from living contemporary poets, giving preference to work which hadn’t appeared in book collections as of yet.
What pitfalls and difficulties did you encounter?
Neither Oliver nor I had ever done this kind of a project before, and so we ended up kind of doing it ass backwards in that we solicited poems from poets we knew we wanted to include, sent out a general call for submissions, read through and selected poems for inclusion, and then took the finished text and shopped it around to potential presses. Needless to say, what we found out is that a lot of presses want to have some kind of a say in the construction, shape, and even content of a project like this. There was also the issue of heft and volume. Oliver and I had chosen—and already accepted—around 200 poems, and many of the presses we admired were interested but told us the anthology was simply too big. We were asked to omit roughly ¼ of the poems, or 50 poets. While we understood the reasoning behind this (overhead, an unwieldy and therefore more expensive text to produce, etc.), neither one of us was willing to un-accept the poems and axe out the poets we’d already chosen to include. We agreed that we’d rather let the project die on the vine than pull a Paris Review. Luckily, it never came to that, as The University of Akron Press accepted it in all its unwieldy glory. They understood our vision and had the resources to help us bring it to fruition.
Beyond that, I feel like I avoided a lot of difficulties and pitfalls by choosing my editorial partner carefully. Like any relationship, you want someone you can communicate with honestly. I was fortunate in that Oliver and I worked extremely well together. We needed to make logistical choices, like would we accept more than one poem from a single author or include more poets with one poem each? We decided on the latter, and I’m pleased with that decision, as the anthology is more inclusive and has a wider range of voices than it would have if we’d chosen to delve deeper into an individual poet’s range of persona choices. We also had to make some tough editorial choices, but we reached consensus really easily. We had the same vision for the text—as a teaching tool as well as a curated collection—and that vision helped to inform and simplify our decision-making process.
What concerns about inclusion and exclusion did you work through?
As I said, we were hoping for a very large, thorough anthology. I wanted to include lots of poets who had published persona poems in previous book collections. I wanted to include poets like Ai and Norman Dubie, even Robert Browning’s famous “My Last Duchess” was in the mix, but we didn’t want to set up rules for including some poets at the exclusion of others. So both Stacey and I agreed that we would only take poems with permissions that were readily available without the cost of republication fees. In the end, doing the open call was a good thing because we wound up with a lot of work and we had to make some tough decisions over good poems. Had we slotted pages for the more well-known poems and poets, we’d be losing some great new voices.
How has the response to your anthology (positive, negative, and otherwise) solidified, developed, or altered your thinking about what the work of being an editor of anthologies is?
I’m not sure I had any real understanding of what the work of an anthology editor actually is beyond making editorial choices consistent with a vision. The reality is much more complicated, as it involves creating a text capacious enough to reconcile diverse aesthetics while balancing and including a wide range of contributors. But the response to this anthology at every stage of its development has been overwhelmingly positive and has consistently revised my expectations for the text itself.
When we sent out the general call for submissions, over 600 poets submitted over 3,000 persona poems for consideration. Clearly, we had tapped into something vital that was happening in contemporary poetry—and that harkened back hundreds of years in the literary tradition. It was a pretty teleological endeavor: it grew out of a need for itself and therefore indicated its own necessity and importance. And the poets who were contributors turned out to be the best advocates and spokespersons for the project, as they believed in it and spread the word.
When the anthology came out, we set up a series of readings around the country—in New York, Boston, St. Louis, Portland, Atlanta—featuring contributors who read both their own poems and other poems that they admired in the anthology. We loved that these poets were doing other poets in other voices since this is the heart of persona. And the readings themselves were communal and convivial and just plain fun.
On a pedagogical level, the book is doing what we hoped in that it’s been adopted into curricula from undergraduate to graduate programs in addition to being read by poets outside of the academy. So on every level, the response has been so positive and so heartening that it almost makes me want to edit another one. Almost.