How did the idea for the book came about, and what were the biggest challenges you have faced as editors?
Words without Borders is a fantastic resource. They have been doing marvelous things for so many years, and have introduced some of the best writers from around the world way before their books have been published in the US. So when they approached me with the idea of doing the anthology with Harper Collins, I was glad to do this.
Having said that, I must add that permissions have been the real burden for the book. The book is about ½ of the original size simply because the permissions can be so expensive, and ended up being way above our budget. Some of my favorite poets have been cut from the book because we couldn’t afford them. Brecht, for instance, is represented with only four lines. Which is a shame. But who can afford to pay a thousand dollars per poem? So, that was the main challenge for us.
The other challenge was the fact that there is an implicit (or, not so implicit?) racism and sexism in relation to what gets translated, where, and by whom. For instance, every other American poet has published a translation or two by a poet from Paris, France. But how many American poets you know who can list even two or three poets from French-speaking Africa, let alone the African languages? This is a real problem. The other problem is the lack of translations of work done by women poets. About four or five years ago, we at Poetry International published a large list of women poets from around the world—famous women poets, I must add—whose names are well known here in the US, but who are rarely translated, and do not have a book in English. The list was widely circulated for a few months on blogs. Did anything happen? Nothing. It is a shame.
What were the joys of putting this book together?
Well, the real fun, for me, was breaking the rules. We have included a number of prose pieces, pages from novels for instance, which I consider poetry. Take Cortazar, for example. Or, Camilo Jose Cela’s fantastic little novel Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son, which is really a novel in prose poems. If we had had more money, I would have included more of such hybrid pieces, from writers as different as Yoell Hoffman and Kawabata.
Very early on, the decision was made not to include any sort of divisions by country/language/biographies. I still stand behind that decision. Too much attention is being paid to the poetic gossip/awards/wars/cultural context in so many anthologies of poetries from around the world. And, not enough attention is being paid to words on the page. Plus, to what country does Vénus Khoury-Ghata belong? She is from Lebanon and writes in French, but claims that she writes “in Arabic through French.” Or, where do you place Edmond Jabes? Or even Miłosz? Most Americans think of Miłosz as a typical Polish poet. Most Polish poets don’t think of him that way—he was born in Vilnius, a place Polish is hardly a dominant language. When he came back to Warsaw, and had a meeting with that great poetic innovator Miron Białoszewski, the following exchange took place:
Miłosz: I greatly admire all the innovative work you have done in Polish. But I could never allow that to enter my poems.
Miłosz: You are from Warsaw, the heart of the Polish language. I am from Vilna, which was never a part of Poland.
That tells you a lot. So, we arranged the poets by the only thing they had in common, for better or worse: their time period.
As for the fun part of editing the book—well, the fun for me was being able to include some little anthologies inside the Ecco anthology itself. For instance, the preface talks about various poems we have included that are based on a passage from Ecclesiastes. There are about eight pieces in the book (and several others, not discussed in the preface) which take the form and go somewhere entirely else with it. There is also a little anthology of war poems in there, a little anthology of erotic poems, a little collection of numerous poets influenced by Whitman, who was probably the main influence on the twentieth-century poetics—writers as different as Apollinaire, Mayakovsky, Miłosz, Anna Swir, Šalamun, Brodsky, Dunya Mikhail, Valzhyna Mort, and others have poems that are in conversation with Walt.
Detecting that kind of conversation between poets is of real interest for me, the real reason why I put together this or that project. In retrospect, the Ecco book is of course quite limited. We simply didn’t have the funding necessary to give a real portrait of the century in verse. After that book was done, I promised myself never to do something like that again, and yet of course I broke the promise. In 2014, the Poetry Foundation will co-publish a series of ten books that are, for me, in one way or another, a continuation of the Ecco book. Those will include Raul Zurita and Forrest Gander’s wonderful selection of Essential poets from Latin America (Copper Canyon); Ming Di’s really groundbreaking look at the Chinese poets of 1990s post-Misty period, that is (Tupelo); Valzhyna Mort’s compilation of poems recommended by such East Europeans as Adam Zagajewski, Tomas Šalamun and others (Red Hen Press); Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani’s New African Poets project (Slappering Hol and Prairie Schooner); Dunya Mikhail’s Essential Poems from Iraq (New Directions); Malena Morling’s anthology of twentieth-century Swedish poetry; and so on. Editing that new series was a real education for me, something I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t know how much learning experience the Ecco book was.
What I hope people don’t take from this anthology—or from any anthology, for that matter—is an idea that the book in your hands is somehow an end product. It is not. Any anthology is just a table of contents, just an introduction. It is in no way a curriculum, or canon, it is just an initiation. You are overhearing an editor having a conversation with her or his betters. You are glimpsing an editor getting an education, learning something. If it is a good book, the editor is having a wonderful time, it is a play-book, a book where all sorts of echoes happen, an orchestra of sorts.
What are examples of such books? For me, Jerome Rothenberg’s compilations are really a joy to read and teach, particularly that old tome of his, “Technicians of the Sacred.” His collaborations with Joris are fantastic, too, as are Joris’s own anthologies. I have a very high regard for Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting book, which was an education for many poets in my generation. I enjoy Hirsch’s, Agostin’s, Gander’s, McClutchy’s and Simic’s anthologies. Simic’s and Strand’s collaboration, Another Republic has a real flaw: there are no women poets in it. But otherwise, it is a brilliant book. When I teach it, I teach it with a supplement—“Twentieth Century European and Latin American Poetry by Women.” But I do teach it—it is one of those rare compilations that has survived the test of time. Among the newer books, Oxford Anthology of Latin American poetry is a real joy, with many wonderful discoveries. Some old Naropa lectures compilations edited by Anne Waldman will surprise you greatly. There I found a really brilliant piece by Alice Notley on why epics in late 20th and early 21st century will be written by women (her piece was written a few decades ago). It is a very short essay, but explains/predicts beautifully the work of such poets as Anne Carson, CD Wright, Carolyn Forche, and Notley herself, among many others. Recently, I loved FSG’s Book of German Poetry and FSG Book of Italian Poetry. A little anthology of new Romanian Poetry, edited by my former student, Martin Woodside, Of Gentle Wolves, is a real gem. If the best 20th century European poets were French, Russians, Italians, and perhaps Swedes, I have no hesitation in saying that the 21st century Romanians are making a serious come back. There is marvelous, really wild poetry being written in that country—and most of it unknown in US. Ever heard of Nora Iuga? Ana Blandiana? You should. They are wonderful, and their younger contemporaries are even better, more unpredictable. Well, one can go on and on…
What advice would you give to future anthologists?
Be creative and pragmatic. It’s in our nature as readers to organize and compile. What are all these yearend best-of lists, and this internet meme about the ten books that affected you most, if not blueprints for collections? And of course every editor carries around ideas for anthologies, most of which never reach fruition because they are either too personal or too narrowly focused. The crucial part, I think, is coming up with a strong organizing principle and a rigorous selection process, and keeping in mind that these pieces, by these writers, in this order, must compose a valuable and singular project.
That said, all anthologies are exercises in reluctant exclusion, and ours was often an exercise in frustration, for the reasons Ilya mentions above. Of the seven Words without Borders anthologies, this one has the widest range and largest number of pieces and authors; none of the others required such prolonged research and permissions work, or the extensive revisions to the original contents. It was a hydra: every time we secured rights from one source, two other rightsholders would sprout in its place, usually asking four figures. As a result, we were constantly negotiating not only contracts but the very shape of the volume, balancing both pragmatic and artistic concerns in the service of the original vision. So: be flexible, and inventive.
All of this takes far more time than you will ever imagine, so start early.
And brace yourself: you will discover brilliant work that would be an ideal fit for your project after your book is at the printer. To which the only solution is to start another anthology.