Friday, May 21, 2010

Scriblerus Club 2010

The second in a three-part series on anthologies. Canadian poet, anthologist and translator Gary Geddes is author of numerous anthologies, notably his widely read Fifteen Canadian Poets and 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics. Geddes took some time this week to talk about his experience as an anthologist.

DK: What are anthologies good for anyway? as an academic tool? a tool for broadening poetry's audience?

GG: It’s always worth asking why an anthology has been produced. The reasons can be many: celebration, education, vanity, reminding the public at large that poetry is still our first language, self-promotion, cultural programming, money, smashing the canon, bringing in new voices, or all of the above.

DK: Is it quality alone that determines your selection? What are some of the challenges?

GG: I have produced a couple of international anthologies, a Canadian anthology (e.g. Fifteen Canadian Poets), a BC anthology (Skookum Wawa), a Vancouver anthology (Vancouver: Soul of A City), an anthology of writings about Latin-America (Compañeros), an anthology of new young writers (The Inner Ear), and a collection of travel writings (Chinada; Memoirs of the Gang of Seven). In some of these region, place, theme and other considerations, rather than just quality, were involved in the choice of materials.

The thematic or regional anthologies posed many challenges: in Skookum Wawa, for example, I had to consider the situation of BC writers who write about anything but British Columbia and to ask myself: am I celebrating the region here or, simply, its writers?? If the former, there’s a strong case for including non-Canadians who write tellingly about the province or region.

DK: Do American and British anthologies differ markedly from Canadian anthologies?

GG: I have not made a study of recent US and UK anthologies, so I can’t really answer this question. In the US, the big blockbusters like the Norton anthology still dominate the teaching of poetry. To tap into the Canadian market, which was fairly committed to my anthology, Norton included a few token Canadians with very modest representation. In the UK, Bloodaxe and Carcanet have used anthologies to advance the careers of their own stable of writers by including most of them in collections with a dozen or more famous names, which I think makes good sense given greater possibility of media attention for anthologies and the unlikelihood that the individual volumes are going to be found in most bookstores.

DK: Are we doing our best to capture the really good poets and good poetry in this country?

GG: Books, magazines, blogs, performances are certainly helping to give exposure to poetry, though the paucity of reviews and the dumbing down of the CBC in terms of the literary arts are not helpful. I think poetry should be at the centre of all literary studies, but that is definitely not the case at universities or in schools.

As for locating and promoting the best poets, that will always be a problem, given the size of the pack and the solitary nature of the activity. As the editor of a magazine, blog and non-commercial anthology, it’s often possible to include a few great poets, but not always possible to get their best poems, especially if you're not able to pay when asking for new or previously unpublished work. Most poets, even the best, do not hit a home-run every time at bat.

DK: A related question readers had last week was how much we can or should expect of anthology editors in terms of "knowing the field." Based upon your experience editing 20th-Century Poetry & Poetics how far should an editor go in trying to represent the array of tastes that are out there?

GG: When I proposed and was given the opportunity to edit 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics, it was in response to my awareness that there were no serious modern anthologies in print that represented (in good measure) the poetries (in English) of Canada, the UK and the US. We were still in colonial mode, reading British and American writers, but not our own. So, my aim was to produce a teaching anthology that would cover the major figures and movements, as I saw them, placing Canadian poets alongside their contemporaries.

The two other aims were to make the selections for each poet substantial enough to give a clear sense of the poet’s development; and to provide statements on poetics that would help teachers and students understand more of the poetic process and the kind of aesthetic issues that poets find important.

It must have seemed to friends that I was hoping for a miracle to be born from the marriage of my ignorance and arrogance. However, I made it my task to study the field, consider a wide range of critical opinions, and play those opinions off against my own subjective responses as a reader. It was a big gamble for Oxford University Press to take me on; and it was a leap of faith for me to think (and assure Oxford) that I could handle such a project.

The book was time-sensitive, of course, as are all anthologies, products of their moment and geo-historical situation. This means that as the various revised editions were pondered, debated, then produced, the scene had changed radically and often; and so had I, along with my taste. Because the anthology had become successful both pedagogically and commercially, what started as a pioneering venture inspired by passion and hope was now being transformed into a re-tooling compromised by market considerations.

In the case of each new edition, various users of the anthology were consulted, asked what had been left out, what should be added, and what might be removed. The responses to these questions, some of them very helpful, were given serious consideration, but in the end all were filtered through my own impressions of the developing poetry scene and my own slowly emerging personal aesthetic, which involved a gradual shift of emphasis from the lyric to the longer forms and to more engaged writing.

The problem here—one among many—was that every decade brought so many new poets into print, in Canada and abroad, that it was impossible for me to have read and considered them all. And this problem has increased exponentially in the intervening years. As Yeats said in his address to the Scriblerus Club (in the chauvinism of the time): “Gentlemen, there are too many of us.” What once seemed, in my ignorance and naivety, a wonderful gesture of inclusion and celebration has come to feel like an unfortunate and inescapable act of exclusion.

In short, I’ve come to believe that anthologies are probably still a necessary evil, but most definitely only a temporary good.

DK: Will we see as many anthologies as are published today?

GG: Given the conflicting and, at times, contradictory impulses governing the production of anthologies, not to mention the cost of permissions, I am amazed that anthologies still continue to be produced at all. So I suspect in the next decade or two there will be fewer and fewer major teaching anthologies produced in Canada. And those that are produced will include only new or unpublished poems. Costs are too high; broad course adoptions are no longer possible. Individual teachers are making course-packs of their dozen or more favourite poets or poems, saving students a few dollars but depriving them of exposure to a much wider selection of work than can usually be covered in the course. All the various –isms, too, are making their demands on classroom time.

DK: What are you working on now?

GG: I am working on a non-fiction book about justice and healing in sub-Saharan Africa that took me to Rwanda, Uganda, DR Congo, Ethiopia and Somaliland twice last year. I am about to do the proofing of a new book of poems called Swimming Ginger and a reprint of The Terracotta Army and, as always, tinkering with new poems. No more anthologies, though I am putting some thoughts together on the subject in an essay called "Confessions of An Unrepentant Anthologist."

DK: Why “unrepentant”? And do you have any suggestions for someone planning their first anthology?

GG: I think you can see from what I've written above that there is always struggle and guilt involved in selecting; thus the word 'confession.' If you're planning an anthology, make sure you have deep pockets and wear a bullet-proof vest; or, to change the metaphor, have very good line-backers.

Gary Geddes recently published a small book of essays entitled Out of the Ordinary: Politics, Poetry & Narrative (Kalamalka Press, Okanagan College, Vernon, 2009). The Terracotta Army is a reprint of a book that won the Americas Region award for the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and was dramatized and broadcast by both CBC and BBC radio. The publications coincide with the arrival in Canada of the terracotta warriors exhibit, which will go to the ROM in Toronto, Glenbow in Calgary, Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal, and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.
Next week: Part Three of Scriblerus Club 2010 featuring, among others, British-Canadian poet and anthologist Todd Swift.
The response to my request for a poem to be read aloud at the beginning of Victoria’s city hall council meeting May 13 was tremendous. Ultimately, I selected a poem by Victorian Dave Cavanaugh. Here it is. Enjoy:

Sorry We Are

In Victoria, city of lights and ancient flora,
huge buses with the broad faces of totems
crawl by flashing digitized confession:

Giant Yodas of urban transit they are,
lost apologetic mammoths. Queenly
city, hungry we are for your destinations,
and sorry for your buses’ sorrow.
Our own it is.

The next flash: “NOT IN SERVICE.” Sad
but fair enough. We understand your woe. So
much history to traverse, so much paved over
that may not be unearthed, time there is
not enough.


John Pass said...

A delightful poem! I remember
staying in Victoria once at the Daffodil Inn adjacent to a transit yard where languished an entire sorrowful herd of busses bound for that same destination.

And in Powell River seeing
signs for the #2 to Grief Point . . . I imagine it connecting to the #1 from/to where? Happy Valley? Not a bus I'd want to miss.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, John. Yeah, lots of fun. Council members seemed to like it, too.

The first sign I saw upon disembarking from the ferry in Newfoundland years ago: "Les Isles Du Mort." Sounds like some outer ring that Dante missed.


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