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 Chicago and innovative poetry, covering the suburbs all the way from Mill Valley to Saint Marks Place. There are poets here who live in Iowa City, Madison, Milwaukee, as well as writers whose connection to the city of Chicago is historical rather than current (Paul Hoover & Maxine Chernoff on the West Coast, new Poetry Project Executive Director Stacy Szymaszek – a lifelong Milwaukee gal until she decided to take New York by storm – firmly planted in the East, Tim Yu in Toronto, Jesse Seldess all the way in Berlin²). It’s not that there are no omissions – Christian Wiman & the School of Quietude are altogether absent, as are the Slam poets for which the city is known – or even that there are no omissions that, in the context of this specific project, aren’t puzzling & even egregious – Mary Margaret Sloan, Connie Deanovich, Karl Gartung if you buy the book’s geographic reach into Wisconsin – it’s that you can see the editors throwing out as wide a net as they could envision.

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 Chicago verse amongst the New Americans was always that the language was so very flat, with examples cited invariably citing both Carl Sandburg & Paul Carroll³. It’s conceivable that Allegrezza & Bianchi have shaded this book a little more in the direction of melopoetic craft than might really be warranted looking at the scene sociologically – you will note that their broad net didn’t manage to catch more experimental figures like Karl Young or Miekal And, & that the works selected of Roberto Harrison, given a very generous sampling toward the very end of the book, are far from his most opaque or difficult pieces.

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 Black Mountain, Paul & Maxine are it. They are the only poets in this anthology who appeared as well in the last project of this kind, 15 Chicago Poets, published in 1976 and edited by Richard Friedman, Peter Kostakis & Darlene Pearlstein. Hoover & Chernoff been such important influences for so many years that the scene – especially as outlined here – is just unimaginable without them. But they’re buried deep in the middle of this book & not side by side. Maxine makes a point of noting that she moved to California in 1994. Indeed, I wonder if the necessity – which I certainly agree with – of including Hoover & Chernoff didn’t in turn dictate the broader geographical strategy of the book.

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 Duncan declined to participate in A Controversy of Poets or as I did Messerli’s Language Poetries?) But, again, that generosity thing appears to require that the editors give over their pages to poetry to the maximum degree possible. Ten extra pages might have meant cutting two poets & it’s very evident which side of that question Allegrezza & Bianchi are on.

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 University of Chicago Press should die of envy for what Cracked Slab Books has accomplished in its own back yard, for example – that could have guaranteed a more ideal page count (say closer to 500 than 250). In other words, is this volume an act of diffidence and defiance or a further sign that Chicago continues to be the Rodney Dangerfield of writing scenes? In either case, this volume demonstrates just how completely the community has evolved in the three decades since 15 Chicago Poets.


¹ In addition to Bay Poetics and the numerous anthologies of the New York School, one regional collection that should have gotten much broader attention at the time it was published was Bill Mohr’s Poetry Loves Poetry, a 1985 gathering of the Los Angeles scene. Two other volumes worth noting are Bill Lavender’s Another South, and rob mclennan’s Decalogue: Ten Ottawa Poets. The strangest regional anthology would seem to be The Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley’s Poetry Walk, edited by Robert Hass and Jessica Fisher, which documents the plaques accorded to Berkeley poets in the city’s theater district. Like Hoover & Chernoff in The City Visible, I was included in this anthology in spite of having moved away several years before. On the other hand, I’m just down the block from Shakespeare, Ben Jonson & Bertie Brecht.

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.