Thursday, March 07, 2013

My sense that that the free-range anthology has outlived its value as an object, at least in codex form, does not mean that I think that book anthologies as such are useless. Quite the opposite. The form is perfectly suited to more sharply defined functions, focusing in on a narrower spectrum of poetry, or for introducing a new terrain or category altogether. Examples that I’ve praised in the recent past – and would do so again – include Beauty is a Verb, a gathering of poets with visible disabilities, or The City Visible, a collection of recent poets from Chicagoland, or Bay Poetics, Stephanie Young’s panoramic look at poetry from the SF-Bay Area.

But Young herself noted – and I agreed (& this is nearly seven years ago at this point) – that her task was itself problematic to the edge of ludicrous. Her 110 poets (more than the first edition of the Norton PoMo) managed not to include Kay Ryan, Tom Clark, Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Michael Rothenberg, David Meltzer, Bob Hass, David Buuck, David Bromige, Michael Palmer, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Truong Tran, Alice Jones, DA Powell, Edward Smallfield, Rusty Morrison, Judy Grahn, Aaron Shurin, Renee Gladman, Norman Fischer, Gail Sher, Curtis Faville, Eavan Boland, Morton Marcus, Alan Soldolfsky, Joyce Jenkins, Richard Silberg, Dennis Schmitz, Joe Stroud, Robert Sward, Chana Block, Rochelle Nameroff, Jack Marshall, Julia Vinograd, Richard Denning, Sotère Torregian, Jack & Adele Foley, Scott Bentley, Ebbe Borregaard, Harold Dull, Nina Serrano, or Al Young. For starters. That list includes two US Poets Laureate & one laureate of the state of California. And Young did a terrific job. But, even though the Bay Area represents just one (or maybe two if you break the South Bay out as a separate entity) of the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas, it already is quite beyond the stage where it can be represented by 110 poets. Brooklyn – let alone greater New York City – would present parallel problems for anyone who likewise attempts the implausible.

So it’s a tricky question, how much is reasonable, and what is the dividing line between do-able and just plain silly. Some recent anthologies show this question generally in its most positive aspect. I’m completely pleased that each exists, because I know that they broaden my scope of knowledge. Which in turn focuses the question a little differently. What if I knew more about their areas of coverage? There was a time after all when I knew more or less nothing & the Oscar Williams paperback anthologies of the mid-20th century half-persuaded me that I didn’t need to know more, focusing as I did then – I was maybe 15 – on Robert Frost, failing to notice the presence of Frank O’Hara, William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound. It wasn’t until I was 18 and had The New American Poetry in hand that the world really opened up for me.¹ But at 15, I had no means for opening a book & thinking “right poets, wrong poems” or how to pose the problem. Or that it even existed.

In one sense – a big one – this is for whom anthologies are compiled. They work best for those who know the least, and who in turn have the most to learn. Which means that it becomes terribly important who is doing the editing, and what they in turn are attempting to accomplish.

A volume like Across the Line / Al otro lado: The Poetry of Baja California, edited by Harry Polkinhorn & Mark Weiss – a 2002 volume I got as a result of my spending time with Mark at the far end of Mexico last January – represents my plight exactly, and I how I most often tend to respond to it. My knowledge of poetry in Baja, either now or ten years ago, is not that different from what I knew about poetry overall when I was 15. Of the 53 poets included – plus selections of indigenous poetry & a pair of corridos – there is just one writer whose work I know & read, Heriberto Yépez. But I didn’t know his work at all when this volume first appeared – it wasn’t until I got to know Jonathan Mayhew as a result of starting this blog that same year that Mayhew pointed out this terrific Tijuana poet already making great use of the blog form to get his ideas & work across. But I did know who Polkinhorn & Weiss were back then, Harry’s work probably better than Mark’s. The result being that I trust their judgment as editors. Even if I did not, Harry’s notes at the end of the section on indigenous poetry – poems written not in Spanish, but in Mexico’s many (and endangered) minority languages – would give me the sense that these are people being completely responsible in their approach. Polkinhorn acknowledges the translations of these poems into Spanish, from which they were in turn recast into English. Plus the work in English throughout the volume is infectiously great reading.

Still, 53 poets may sound like a lot, and a 380-page volume is fairly thick until you recognize that it is printed with English & Spanish on facing pages – good for bilingual readers, but limiting for the scope of the project. Further, Junction Press is a small publisher, available through SPD, but lacking in the traveling sales reps who could get the volume placed in bookstores – some still existed in 2002 – which is one reason I didn’t already have this volume when I headed off to Mexico this year. Fortunately, Mark’s big Cuban collection – The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology – is published by UC Press.

Another anthology available from UC Press that is a “must own” item is Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature, co-edited by Pierre Joris & Habib Tengour. It’s not a slam on any of the other volumes to say that this is the best and most important book in this series to date, because it is precisely the fact that this collection opens up new territory – to deliberately employ an imperialist metaphor for a moment – that separates it out from the three earlier collections. Unlike Shaking the Pumpkin, Technicians of the Sacred and Revolution of the Word – the anthologies for Jerry Rothenberg will go to heaven – the first 3 collections of Millennium gather together work that is generally known and available, if not always under one cover. Number 4 may not be the first gathering of work from just south of the Mediterranean – and in some key instances to its north as well -- but it certainly is the first such aimed directly at the general poetry reader. As such, it is as profound an explosion of new writing as any of Rothenberg’s early anthologies. Like those books, and Across the Line / Al otro lado, it is also a great read, a book that contains everyone from Callimachus to Fanon to contemporary experimental work (the volume ends with Omar Berrada’s comparison of Alfred Jarry, Ibn Arabi and bpNichol). It is also 750+ pages, all in English, so functionally four times the size of the Baja book. It could – I am certain – have been much, much larger, but it already is one of those volumes one could sink into and not come up for air for a year or more, without exhausting its riches.

If this book has a limitation, it is that it tries to do too much -- the poetry of multiple societies that represent some of the oldest civilizations on the planet, stretching from the western border of Egypt to the southern tip of Mauritania. This follows the outlines of the Arab Maghreb Union and thus omits Egypt, Chad & the Sudan as well as sub-Saharan Africa, although the volume does include some Tuareg proverbs from southernmost Algeria, work from the Maghreb diaspora (primarily to Europe) as well as imperial influences that impacted the region as well. Inevitably, these raise the issues of the histories of borders & the impact that occupation has had on each of these societies – only 25,000 of the 1.2 million Tuareg peoples in the world are to be found in Algeria, for example, with much larger populations centered in Mali & Nigeria. Even today, the Western Sahara is an occupied territory claimed by Morocco along the coast, and Algerian-backed forces to the east, tho most of the land borders Mauritania.

Joris & Tengour attempt to create order out of historical messiness in the best way possible, by being quite specific in laying out different groupings. The result is a book that has 13 major subdivisions, a lot for an anthology and one that is apt to be ignored by the casual reader who treats such volumes like a giant bazars, hopping about without specific reading route in mind – some of these subdivisions are further segmented by nation. I can’t think of another volume – in the Millennium series or elsewhere – where there is going to be a greater gap than between the relative opacity that greets the peripatetic casual “dipper-in” and the in-depth mini-collections that are available to anyone who decides that today is the day for Tunisia, or for early prose. Poems for the Millennium 4 is a great anthology, but it is not a book for browsers.

The problem of subdivisions in an anthology is a vexing issue for every editor – I speak from experience. If Millennium 4 wades in a little too deep for my taste, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas errs on not wading in deeply enough, or perhaps just doesn’t slice the pie in the same way I would, opting for the most part for the process-centered divisions are so broad as to mush together the work of many different subcultures and peoples into a few categories that are supposed to be universalizing, I think, but strike me instead as homogenizing very different writers right where I want to separate languages & cultures.
Hedge Coke sets her goal out in a most roundabout manner:

It is my hope that this compilation serves as an inlet to immense diversity in orality, linguistic and cultural sway of individual contemporary poets as individually talented poets, whose significantly illustrative and representative poetry is gathered here collectively but maintains the dignity of each poet as individual throughout.

This feels like very anxious prose and Hedge Coke devotes an inordinate amount of her introduction to discussing the very real difficulties she confronted pulling the book together. She notes that,

This book is meant to be neither a manifesto nor a completely comprehensive volume, but an assertion of significant presence of continual literary and lyric engagement, as an edifying representative field survey of some of the finest poets publishing today in the Indigenous Americas. It is a selected volume.

Fair enough. But Hedge Coke’s depiction of individual sections is harder to bring into focus than merely editing out repetitive or polysyllabic language:

“Prelude” introduces the reading as “Calyx” [Sherwin Bitsui’s one-page poem that takes up the entire section] forms the whorl enclosing the petals (flower of knowledge) that serve to protect the budding poetic awakening the volume strives toward. It is the invocation of the text, the overture….
The naturally camouflaged “Ptarmigan” represents the intention to espouse poetic cloaking through imagery, metaphor, murmur and singing quality of verse (intentional and/or innate), lyrically and philosophically opening the negotiation of reader entrance into the text, while providing the base connection for the sustaining volume.
“Liminal” offers temporal threshold poetry, poetry of impression, strategic challenge, transitional call, and dualistic presentation.
Ñeñe’I Ha-şa:gid (In the Midst of Songs)” opens aetheric, unbound, linguistic expanse, embracing multilingual works, borderless, in whistling mosaic.

And so forth for all seven sections. Clearly, Hedge Coke wants to give us a radically new experience of putting works together, of see lives through poetry, in poetry. And there is a lot of good writing here as well as an unquestionably important theme – that the literature of the Americas is not restricted to languages that came over from Europe. But my sense is that these sections don’t successfully illuminate her purpose, which is troubling because this may be just one of two anthologies here compiled entirely within the community from which it comes. Because some poets (Bitsui, Simon Ortiz, Hedge Coke herself) turn up in multiple places, it would take a serious spread sheet to tease out just how many poets are included, but just counting by the national identifications in the table of contents, it appears that 66 of the 84 contributions come from the US, with Canada second at 7, Columbia at 4, Venezuela 2, and five other nations one each. Yet the US population represents just one-third of that of the Americas overall, a much smaller fraction of first peoples populations. That’s ten nations represented – Wikipedia lists 60, including many island nations completely off Hedge Coke’s map. Brazil – which means the Amazon – is nowhere to be found, which means that the two nations whose aggregate census equals that of the United States, Mexico & Brazil, have been themselves one contribution to the 66 that come from Los Estados Unidos. Nor is there evidence in this book of the visual poetics or post-avant poetries that can be found today in South America. It’s conceivable that a majority of the poets here learned to write in English in MFA programs in the US – a consequence that would be worth exploring in depth for all of its political implications, but which is buried by the book’s organization.

It’s instructive to look at Sing alongside Ámbar Past’s Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women, which came out six years ago from El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press (after earlier editions appeared in Mexico, one in Spanish & Tzotzil, the second in English & Tzotzil) It’s two-thirds the size of Sing – albeit the pages are larger and there is a lot of indigenous visual content as well – but it may have as many poets, or even more, than the fatter paperback from the University of Arizona. And it’s focused on just one portion of the peninsula at the southern tip of Mexico, a much tighter focus than Sing. Past’s approach is relatively minimalist – the poems are not offered in Tzotzil in this edition – and divided essentially into poems embedded in stories & essays, and incantations, with artwork throughout. As rich as it is, Incantations could itself be faulted for giving the impression that Tzotzil is the major Mayan tongue, when its 265,000 speakers are perhaps only one third as many as speak Yucatec, the most common of the 30 languages descended from Proto-Mayan over the past four millennia that survive today. Imagine a volume as rich as Incantations for each of those 30 languages, and then for all of the other indigenous tongues that stretch across the American continent. No wonder Past held to her focus, and no wonder Hedge Coke struggles with a broader horizon.

An even tighter focus can be found in Susan M Schultz’ Jack London is Dead: Contemporary Euro-American Poetry of Hawai’i (and Some Stories) from Schultz’ own TinFish, one of the great small presses of the United States. If I were to rank these anthologies by their sensitivity to the complexities of race, imperialism, language & global history, Schultz’ gathering of haoles from the islands would get placed right alongside Millennium 4 at the hypersensitive end of the scale, Sing, in spite of its intentions, at the far end as the most homogenizing collection, with Across the Line & Incantations somewhere in the middle. It is worth noting that ALL of the anthologists I’ve discussed to date have complicated relations to their own heritage and place in the world – Joris has lived on three continents, Hedge Coke lists an ancestry with ten different sources: Wendat / Huron / Metis / Tsalagi / Creek / French Canadian / Portuguese / Irish / Scot / English. People who edit territorial anthologies don’t get there by accident.

What distinguishes Schultz’ gathering of specifically Euro-American writers from the middle of the Pacific is the depth of analysis in her introduction. I wish that each of these books had comparable discussions. The power relations involved in being a white writer in the Islands is exceptionally convoluted – there are power politics of language, publication, heritage, access to mainland readership & distribution. The reactions to these are all the across the map as well, even including Faye Kicknosway’s failure to respond to emails for such a project (one can imagine Kicknosway’s old Detroit background as one that would resonate very differently to any request to be part of a white anthology in any context). I personally regret her absence here, as she is a major figure there even as reclusive as she can be. Likewise, I wish WS Merwin – himself the target of sharp criticism from native poets – viz Kapalai‘ula de Silva’s “The Literary Offenses of WS Merwin’s Falling Cliffs” – had been included, even though (perhaps especially though) his presence would have created a lopsided presence in the volume. Given that there are other writers here whose connection to the islands is in the past – Rob Wilson has been in Santa Cruz for quite a while and Jim Chapson (who attended SF State the same years I did in the 1960s) has been teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1976 – I also wish that writers like Juliana Spahr & Bill Luoma had also been included. Spahr’s own stance is as political as Schultz’ and their analysis is not that different, at least to my eye. ²

But here is a situation where I can, at least to some degree, do what I cannot for Tzotzil poets of Chiapas, point to obvious absences. And, for what it’s worth, Jack London is Dead – a title that echoes with the sad old myth of Kill Haole Day – is a book without internal segmentation. It would have been fascinating to see how Schultz might have divided these writers into more cogent groupings, or if there is not enough of an ongoing community established to make such segmentation plausible. An anthology of isolatos, as Melville & Olson might have called them, may be exactly what Schultz has delivered.

What one does notice about the writers in Jack London is not that different from what one might find in anthology of poetry from Chicago or the Bay Area, a broad range of aesthetics, no single aesthetic stance and – in this volume as well as those others – a surprisingly large amount of good writing by people who aren’t as widely known as they deserve to be. Schultz, Chapson & Wilson – like Chapson, I first met him 40 years ago – are really the writers I already know here. Some others I’ve sort of heard of, so I’m not shocked to be impressed by Janna Plant or Margo Berdeshevsky, but poets like Shantel Grace & Anne Kennedy (apparently better known in the context of New Zealand than the US) are completely new to me, and they’re wonderful. Jack London may actually make the fewest claims for the poetry it includes – and it certainly is the most complicated, politically – but this is a book filled with delights.

Geographical anthologies are inherently identarian, rather than formal, in their concerns – though Hedge Coke at least suggests otherwise in her introduction – and, as such, range from the anthropological to the participatory in the approaches available to editors. I don’t think that there is a “better” or “correct” way to proceed, except to do so with the utmost respect & caution & recognition of one’s own relation to the materials at hand. The more one reads poetry as inherently political – and not just “political poetry” but all of it – the more likely one is to glimpse a broader range of what is going on – which in turn demands editorial transparency and humility. All of the editors here have that humility, which makes these books positive reading experiences regardless of any deeper frustrations one might have – the biggest frustration being that there is no giant pool of dollars & time available for everyone to dig in as deeply as, say, Joris & Tengour (who would be the first to tell you, I suspect, of their own frustrations at not enough pages, not enough time etc.).

I hope soon to look at that other range of plausible anthologies – the formal ones that for the most part (there are exceptions here too) proclaim themselves to be in whatever sense a yellow brick road to the future. Books like Lara Glenum & Arielle Greenberg’s Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics; Crag Hill & Nico Vassilakis’ The Last Vispo Anthology: Visual Poetry, 1998-2008; Craig Dworkin & Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing; and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody & Vanessa Place. These are collections that follow in the path set forth by Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, or Louis Zukofsky’s Objectivist Anthology, for that matter, intent not simply on making a claim for the recognition of this or that population, but seeking – with some real success – to change poetry itself. I hope to get to them within the month.

¹ And I got to that, as I’ve noted elsewhere, due to discovering WCW quite by chance in the Albany Public Library. If Dr. Williams had not written the preface to Howl, would I have picked up that book, which is what in led me directly to the Allen anthology? Quite possibly not. It would have been a very different life, that’s for sure.

² They may both disagree vehemently.