Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ubiquitous, multivalent, ambitious: is there any space the poetry anthology has not occupied, any group left unchampioned? This week, the third instalment in “Scriblerus Club 2010” featuring poet-editors Todd Swift, Marilyn Bowering and rob mclennan on the joys and challenges of anthologies.

Todd Swift’s interest in poetry began when his mother introduced him as a child to Dickinson, Frost, Whitman, Eliot, Williams, Yeats, Kenneth Fearing and many others. She also gave him his first college anthology of modern poetry so that by the age of fourteen, says Swift, “it was my dream to become an anthologist."

Today, the British-Canadian poet is one of Canada’s leading poet-editors under the age of 45, travelling in 1987 to Belfast to research his first anthology, Map-Maker’s Colours: New Poets of Northern Ireland (1988), co-edited with Martin Mooney. Ever present in his consciousness: a list of “classic poetry anthologies” that reads like a movie credit roll: Lehman, Hoover, Donald M. Allen, Al Alvarez's The New Poetry, The Oxford Book of English Verse.

“My desert island would want Hayden Carruth's The Voice That Is Great Within Us and The Faber Book of Modern Verse by Michael Roberts. Oscar Williams did some fine anthologizing as well. And of course, Other Men's Flowers is the ultimate. AJM Smith did a good job for Canadian poetry. Geddes’ anthologies are on every shelf of people who care about Canadian poetry.”

So anthologies are everywhere to be found, catering to just about every taste and aesthetic. But why the impulse to assemble them and what are they good for? As an academic tool? To broaden the audience for poetry? Or do they merely serve to launch work that might not be published otherwise?

“Anthologies do so many different things, and are aimed at various audiences. Brian Trehearne's new scholarly Canadian Poetry 1920 to 1960 is good for what it is, and adds some new obscure poets to the canon. More canonically daring are the ones by Starnino and Queyras, for instance. And sometimes, they are just for fun, or for a good cause - or allow poems to be rescued from the emphemerality of the small press and little magazine.”

Along with the anthologies come the controversies: Who’s in? Who’s out? And is this really the “best of” Canadian, American, British or Irish poetry? Swift calls complaints about the decisions anthology editors make de rigueur, like complaining about the weather, a “national habit”’ in Britain where he now resides.

“However, anthologies are not "poetry" or "literature" - they aren't the tradition or the canon, just a means of allowing readers to glimpse what those might be. It is therefore simplistic to complain that anthologies often shape or represent or mediate poetry in ways that vary from the reader’s own needs or beliefs.”

“It is always possible to edit your own anthology if one feels strongly enough. Few anthologies are powerful enough to influence the debate truly. But they do have weight, and it is good to keep an eye on them, of course.”

Still, one reader last week lamented that too often anthologies purport to speak for the whole and end up "a tag-team of lyric, narrative and formal poets offering up a very narrow serving" of poetry that ignores the long poem, ignores the avant garde, while simultaneously posturing as a “national” poetry. Swift doesn’t buy this complaint either:

“Your reader who bemoans "lyric, narrative and formal" work is one of the reasons that Canadian poetry is so indifferently received around the world - the Geddes generation over-stresses a tendency for Canadian poetry to valorize the long poem, the avant-garde, and free verse.”

The result, says Swift, is that an important link is broken to the Irish-British mainstream traditions, including much of High Modernism, from Yeats to Auden.
Like Swift, rob mclennan believes anthologies can serve many functions, often at the same time. At bottom, his instinct as an anthology editor has been to “enrich the conversation of literature as opposed to replace anything.”

“I adhere to Kroetsch's idea that literature is a conversation. But if the same voices are constantly talking, how far can the conversation go?”

mclennan says his Side/lines: A New Canadian Poetics (Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2002) came about as a direct result of a new edition of Margaret Atwood's Survival published in the mid-1990s, without, he says, “even an update of `books by the same author.’" The book was considered “skewered” when it originally appeared, says mclennan, was reissued “for the sake of the foreign market” and is “still littering Canadian used bookstores across the country”. mclennan wanted “another point of view” on “what Canadian writing could be”. What might that “conversation” look like, he asked, what “other considerations”, what “other voices?”

In his subsequent essay "The Trouble with Normal", mclennan took particular issue with the two Breathing Fire anthologies by Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier. His main concern: their claim that the poems they selected were "representative" of the "best Canadian poetry", poems mclennan describes as “metaphor-driven lyric narrative poems”, written by Canadian poets under the age of thirty and most of them, he hastens to add, Lane and Crozier’s former writing students.

“It wasn't (representative), and to claim such is divisive, and offensive to those who happen to have interests that don't coincide with theirs. Had they not said that, the writing within might have been read with less rancour, but again, they might not have received as much attention. When I've done the "decalogue" anthologies, I've tried to balance ten voices of writers I think are doing interesting work, not claiming "best" or anything like that. It's only the “best” based on my interest, my knowledge, etc.”

mclennan makes similar comments about A.F. Moritz’s The Best Canadian Poetry in English in 2009 (see Speaking of Poems, May 15). “Riddled with problems”, that anthology, he maintains, should have been called Best Canadian metaphor-driven lyric narrative Poetry. “To say otherwise is completely misunderstanding the art as a whole,” he adds.

By the same token, mclennan acknowledges that Lane, Crozier and other anthologists face the always difficult, inevitable task of leaving someone out. “I can't claim that my point of view is the only one there is. Here are ten writers doing work really worth reading. Readers are allowed to disagree.”

Todd Swift concurs, but with an important caveat.

“I always regret what has been excluded, but enjoy what has been included. When you invite friends to dinner, it would be perverse to dwell on the Chinese meal you have not served - better to enjoy the steak and potatoes on offer.’
Back in 1977 Marilyn Bowering hoped readers would agree with her that at least one group of poets badly needed including in our “national” literature: Canada’s Aboriginal poets. Hence her and David Day’s decision to compile Many Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Indian Poetry (J. J. Douglas, 1977). It was her belief that a rich oral tradition of Aboriginal poetry was in danger of disappearing altogether and that an anthology would fill an important gap.

“At the time there was nothing published. I mean Buffy Sainte-Marie’s songs were poems and there were one or two (Aboriginal) people who had published a few things, but there didn’t seem to be any gathering place or real consciousness of it. So it was important to get those voices out, even as a first step, so that Aboriginal people who were writing would connect with each other.”

Something that irritates Bowering are Canadian schools of poetry that spring up with an orientation very much outside the country and that won’t look at their own roots and history. The US continues to be a preponderant influence in her view, much as it was upon the Tish Movement, which she acknowledges produced “some wonderful poets”, but failed to provide “a real sense of Canadian literature.”

“While working on my anthology at the time, it was my own sense that there has to be recognition of the ground that you stand on if you’re to get anywhere… For me it was very much land and place based, very much centred on the discoveries made by oral poets from the indigenous culture or later poets.”

Anthologies based upon a theme, gender, region or culture have their advocates and detractors, usually centred around the question of criteria and the quality of poetry unearthed. rob mclennan is a fan of regional anthologies such as one produced in Chicago a few years back and one published by Hagios Press on Saskatchewan. He has more difficulty with women-centred anthologies “because the same generation's male writers don't seem to be given the same attention.”

“There was a magnificent anthology recently of women's poetry and poetics with Coach House Books that is essential reading, but part of me wondered, why can't Stan Rogal be treated this well? Or Stephen Cain?”

Swift is cautious about theme, gender or culturally based anthologies, too, a circumspection shared by Laura Riding and Robert Graves who went so far as to oppose anthologies altogether, and by Bishop who felt anathema for specific anthologies. Anthologies, Swift repeats, “have different roles to play.”

“I do feel that, if one is going to do a "national" anthology the editor needs to be alert to the complex issues surrounding identity, belonging, citizenship, and so on - poets don't always fit neatly into the boxes we might want for them.”

Marilyn Bowering’s biggest concern is a lack of community among Canadian poets overall “because we don’t have things that tell us what’s going on except in a very limited area.” One of her favourite anthologies is the Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology but even this is not the “way to find out what’s going on.” What’s needed is a “sense of continuity that you are connected to a tradition…I think that’s really really important.” Anthologies can provide that, says Bowering, but she’s unsure about how they get into people's hands now: Outside of a few university courses, schools don’t use them much, she contends, and not very many people “just pick up an anthology and leaf through it.”

Something Bowering, Swift and mclennan agree on is that editors are obliged to “know the field”, to learn as much as they can about the traditions of poetry and various aesthetics out there - and to do the legwork when their education or tastes fail them. It often takes a special person willing to do that, says Bowering, such as the late Charles Lillard.

“One of the truly lamentable things about his early death is that Lillard was one of the few people who could have kept anthologizing and incorporating the eye that he brought to the selection and a sense of the continuity and history of British Columbia. Someone who has a grasp of that is really important.”

“Knowing the field is different from liking, approving of, or wanting to represent, the field,” says Todd Swift. His own selections, for example, have been very eclectic, very open. 100 Poets Against The War was not first and foremost an aesthetic enterprise. Poetry Nation showcased what Swift called “B-poetry - trashy fun stuff, like those 50s movies, that, subversive in its way, is often marginalized by the mainstream but has its charms.”

“However, when one is doing a canonical anthology, like the Carcanet one, the editors should know their history, and their tradition, before making too many moves. Anthologies are a genre, and, while secondary to the most creative act, are, like curating an exhibition or editing a film, also aesthetic; skill too is required.”

Nor can editors get out of their obligations by citing overwork. Yes, there are an enormous number of poems and poets out there. And at the end of the day anthologies such as the Best American and Best Canadian and Best Irish may only partially capture all that’s extant. But even these, Swift contends, “keep an eye on the annual yield.”

Still, the task, even for one with as voracious an appetite for editing as Swift, is sometimes overwhelming:

“My most daunting (anthology) has been the most recent, the forthcoming Modern Canadian Poets from Carcanet, edited with Evan Jones. It required us to reconsider the entirety of 20th century Canadian poetry, with new eyes and ears.”
Another common complaint about anthologies: overreaching, underachieving claims about the scope of the poetry selected. Like most hubris it’s an in-built folly easily exposed not by those who’ve been excluded, but by anyone with a rudimentary eye for detail. A.F. Moritz, for example, cited as guiding principles for The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009 his placing of Canadian poetry “within the context of contemporary world poetry and within the English tradition”. However, the context he provides is neither very surprising (What are we if not influenced by English tradition?) nor very contemporary, relying upon world poets who are dead or nearly so, including Octavio Paz, Jorge Guillen, 87-year old French poet Yves Bonnerfoy, Czeslaw Milosz, Emerson and long ago Chinese poets.

But why include a statement of poetics at all? Bowering went so far as to exclude one at the front end of her anthology she says “to get out of the way” of the poems. Many individual collections don’t see the need. The answer, Gary Geddes told us at the beginning of this series, is that it helps teachers and students understand more of the poetic process and the kind of aesthetic issues that poets find important.

But mclennan and Swift demure slightly on the necessity and impact of poetic or aesthetic statements.

“Well, Geddes has been decades deliberately building mass market poetry anthologies for university courses, so his comments are fair, but not all books are made for those purposes,” says mclennan. “Does the reader or writer inside the industry, inside books, for decades, really go through those `teaching aides’ with the same fine-tooth? Perhaps not.”

“I believe it is important,” says Swift, “for the editors to discuss, or at least imply, their poetic or critical bias. This need not include an ars poetica or poetics, though. The difference between North American and British poetry now is that the one cannot move without a poetics, the other barely admits poetics exists.
Anthologies are viewed by many poets as the ultimate validation of their careers, and some poets, especially well established ones, agonize when they’re ignored. How seriously should they take this? Do poets ever solicit editors to be included in an upcoming anthology? And should they?

“Sometimes poets do approach an editor of an anthology," says Swift. “It likely doesn't make much of an impact. Anthologists usually already know the field they are surveying, as it were, by the time they begin to compile the contributors list.”

rob mclennan knows the feeling of being left out, including from the two Breathing Fires to the myriad of follow-ups. But writing, he reminds us, is a lonely business, with few acknowledgements. Writers need to “find their own footings, their own confidence, and not rely on outside forces to arbitrarily give purpose to what it is that they do”. Otherwise, you drive yourself mad waiting. Or if you need to complain, he says, reserve it “to a small parcel of friends”.

“Books are books. Some very important writers have never set foot in an anthology, and some forever-minor poets can run off lists of books they’ve been in until the cows come home. Poets agonize, writers agonize.”
So what drives the inveterate anthologist? Many things: Omnivorous taste. A sense of outrage for the misplaced or the ignored. Sheer love of the genre.

“I loved my first, co-edited with Martin Mooney, Map-Maker's Colours: New Poets of Northern Ireland,” says Swift. “It was launched before my 21st birthday. It allowed me to meet Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, and it was a thrill to hand a review copy over to Terry Eagleton in person, at the launch.”

Sometimes an anthology is driven by curiosity or even by the market place, as when Sina Queyras compiled her anthology of Canadian poetry for a New York publisher. mclennan calls it a “sampler” of Canadian poetry for an American audience, after years of Queyras being asked “What's worth reading in Canadian poetry?”

“Hers had no agenda apart from simply different writers, different voices, she thought worth reading; and hopefully, the book was a starting point for many readers to further explore.”
Will the anthology survive? Gary Geddess seems to think so, though not in the same numbers. Costs are high. Teachers make course-packs of their dozen favourite poets, saving students money, but also the trouble of seeking out other poets. “And the –isms make their own demand on classroom time”. For his part, Swift acknowledges costs for rights for the best (or best-known) poems are high, even prohibitive. But at the same time “many publishers and poets are understanding and cooperative. I suspect more and more such works will be digitally available, and less in print form.”

In the end, all three poet editors agree it’s the “conversation” that counts and if anthologies help to broaden that conversation, well, so much the better. The stakes might be even higher, though. Swift believes Canadian poetry requires a reintroduction to readers in the UK, where it is almost entirely ignored, a point underscored by the omission of PK Page’s death from the UK’s national newspapers.

“Some Canadian poets blithely imply it no longer matters what the Irish and British think of them. Well, if Heaney and Motion don't read or know your work, it is indicative that one is not part of the world conversation in poetry, it seems to me. How else to explain a situation where we know them, but they don't know us? That's not an equal relationship.

Another, broader role for a great Canadian anthology? Perhaps.
Todd Swift’s poetry has been collected in six collections, Budavox (1999), Café Alibi (2002), Rue du Regard (2004), Winter Tennis (2007), Seaway: New and Selected Poems (2008) and Mainstream Love Hotel (2009). In addition to numerous journals and magazines, Swift’s poetry has appeared in many anthologies, including Radio Waves (Enitharmon, UK, 2004), Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets (Persea Books, New York, 2005) and The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry (Véhicule, Montreal, 2005), as well as The Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope, Toronto, 2008).

Swift is currently completing his phD and preparing to have a few poetry books out in a few years. He also hopes to write a novel before he turns 50. He’d also like to do an anthology of British Poets some day and write a study of contemporary and Forties poets. “I'll settle for what I can cram in with the time left me.”
rob mclennan is currently preparing a number of projects for Chaudiere Books, including a selected poems by prairie poet Andrew Suknaski, a first trade collection by Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie, and an anthology of non-fiction pieces by writers on Glengarry County. He is now polishing up a poetry collection or two, and trying to finish two major writing projects by the end of this year--a third novel, and his creative non-fiction work, Sleeping in Toronto.
In addition to editing Many Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Indian Poetry (J. J. Douglas, 1977), Marilyn Bowering is one of Canada’s most cherished poets. She is also an accomplished novelist and is currently working as librettist on an opera with Gavin Bryars and is about to leave for an opera residency in Banff in June. For more background visit

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