Tuesday, June 19, 2007
The most exciting and satisfying anthology I’ve acquired in the past month is The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, edited by William Allegrezza & Raymond Bianchi and published by their own Cracked Slab Books. It’s by no means a perfect anthology – indeed, it makes some of the same basic mistakes that I excoriated the editors of Saints of Hysteria over – no index of contributors (which, frankly, even an acknowledgements page or bionotes section can accomplish), no visible theory of organization, some questionable calls concerning the book’s scope, even mixing in poetic statements with the poetry. Yet whereas Saints very quickly collapses under the aggregate weight of bad decisions, City Visible just sails on through. It not only is easily the best anthology I’ve ever seen that tried to capture the lively scene of the Second City, but it’s a worthy companion to Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics, which for my money is the gold standard in contemporary poetry anthologies, especially ones that offer a regional focus.¹ Why does City Visible succeed where Hysteria simply proves to be too-well named?
The answer is generosity. Where one is painfully aware that the editors of Hysteria are constantly shuffling the deck in order to keep the reader from figuring out just how few cards they’re playing with, City Visible, which – for its project – is positively anorectic at 250 pages (half the size of Bay Poetics), repeatedly errs on the side of inclusion. Its 52 poets offer a very broad definition of what is
At just under five pages per poet, it turns out to be a better presentation overall than the 30 pages accorded each of 13 participants in the Rankine & Sewell volume with its far broader scope precisely because City Visible offers so much more context. What jumps immediately at me is how very important the line is for so many of these poets, whether it’s the very long line of Jennifer Scappetone, the lush rhetorical line of Peter O’Leary, the variable stanzas & gaps in lines of Ed Roberson, Szymaszek’s sense of the Olsonian, even William Fuller’s hyper-precise prose poems, or, to pick a very different example, this:
I will fuck you up.
Come back here motherfucker.
You ‘bout to get served.
This poem by Luis Urrea is, among its other virtues, a perfect haiku. Urrea’s fabulous ear for the vernacular is almost enough to make me love this form for the first time in decades.
What’s interesting about this, for me at least, is that the great knock against
The City Visible does one thing that I generally don’t care for in anthologies, but which works here to give this book far more of a sense of order than, say, Hysteria: it uses photographs of the poets at the beginning of each selection. It’s not so much the quality of the photo – some, like Juliana Spahr’s snapshot of Jennifer Scappettone, don’t reproduce well at all in a thumbnail size on the matte finish of your standard trade book paper – as it is the instant visual separation of one poet from the next. In a way, these miniature photos accomplish much of what a gray page separating out each contributor would have done, but without adding 50-plus pages to the project. This is especially important since Allegrezza & Bianchi seem determined to make use of almost every inch of white space imaginable. When a contributor doesn’t use the three-quarters of a page given over to poetic statements – Michael O’Leary’s piece is one sentence long – the glare of unused paper is startling.
There are a lot of poets here who are reasonably well known far beyond the West Coast of Lake Michigan – Eric Elshtain, Peter & Michael O’Leary, William Fuller, Ed Roberson, Arielle Greenberg, Shin Yu Pai, Dan Beachy-Quick, Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Tim Yu, Laura Sims, Roberto Harrison, Stacy Szymaszek – as well as poets who were completely new to me, including Srikanth Reddy, Suzanne Buffam, Erica Berheim, Garin Cychol, Kristy Odelius, Simone Muench, Lea Graham, Michelle Taransky, Cecilia Pinto, Johanny Paz, Ela Kotowska, Jennifer Karmin. And a bunch in between, such as John Tipton or Mark Tardi, whose poetry is some of my favorite in this volume. Tipton & Tardi are two poets I’ve been following for some time now, but it’s not clear to me that they’re nearly as widely known as they’re going to be in, say, another five years. This book should actually help in that process.
What I wasn’t able to figure out, tho, is why this order of poets and not some other. It’s not alphabetical, nor by date of birth, two fairly traditional strategies for organizing collections like this. It doesn’t start off with Paul Hoover & Maxine Chernoff, tho it is very clear that if this scene has parental figures in the way Olson functioned as one for
What I wish, in a way, is that Bianchi & Allegrezza had done for City Visible – beyond, say, just having more pages to work with, or a title that was more accurate, such as From Chicago Out (which would capture the role the city really has in this volume) – is to organize the contents more akin to the way Don Allen gathered his 44 poets in 1960 into five suites. Even if they had, say, gathered the departed into one group, perhaps Wisconsin poets into a second, Iowa into a third, and then divided the true current Chicagoans into one set of poets more aligned with formal poetry institutions, and a second grouping of those whose day jobs are not thus institutionalized around writing, it would have made for a more powerful reading. That’s an opportunity that Stephanie Young missed as well in Bay Poetics but I think I would argue that that minute you go beyond some minimum number of contributors – say thirty – some kind of ordering device or strategy is utterly necessary. The order here is not only NOT better than alphabetical, it’s not as effective as an alphabetical because there’s no perceptible rationale.
Similarly, I wish the editors had taken maybe ten more pages to discuss their process, their inclusions & exclusions, their theory of the order and anything which might be useful to contextualize the project further. (Did any poets refuse to participate, for example, the way
In all, this is an exciting, eye opening & absolutely useful volume. Its faults, like those of the Allen anthology, have more to do with the limits of human beings and economics & how this book got here in this form than they do with anything that might be “wrong” with the result. One question I would be fascinated to have answered, for example, is whether the editors approached any larger press – the
¹ In addition to Bay Poetics and the numerous anthologies of the
² The risk in this approach, it seems to me, is that it so broadens your possible roster of contributors that it quickly becomes almost meaningless. For example, David Melnick & Tom Mandel both attended the University of Chicago, Andrew Levy taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology for years, Tina Darragh & P. Inman went to library school in Illinois, Jim Liddy’s been practicing a poetics that is one part Jack Spicer, one part Paddy Kavanagh in Milwaukee for decades, Morgan Gibson was once the archetypal Milwaukee poet. Indiana (Eshleman, Hirschman, Fredman) & Michigan (Eshleman again, Wakoski, Watten, Harryman, George & Chris Tysh, Notambu, Pearson when he was there, even John Latta in Ann Arbor) all get left out of this mental map. I’m not suggesting, actually, that any of these poets need to be here – certainly not the way I would argue for Deanovich, Gartung or Sloan – but that the book’s methodology opens the door to such questions.
³ And just as invariably not mentioning Gwendolyn Brooks or, to employ this expanded geographic model, Lorine Niedecker.