Virginia Festival of the Book — The Original Playlists: Poetry Anthology

Anthologies are strange creatures. How do you decide the focus? How do you choose content? How do you secure rights to the materials? And how in the world do you get this work into print? Anthology editors offered perspective and insight into the craft of a collected work, and it was a delightful conversation in the University of Virginia Bookstore.

Nickole Brown, who works at Sarabande Books and is the editor of a number of anthologies, was very concise in the series of steps anthologizers must take. With Saraband, a non-profit publisher (which leads most poets to group all poetry publishers in that category), successful anthologies require much forethought, effort during the process and energy after the finished product hits the shelves.

Brown identified two different types of anthologies: theme-based or collective anthologies. “Each anthology presents its own set of issues,” she noted. She had done both, including a collection of her own poems. Choose a theme-based anthology cautiously she warned: “You think you like the topic, but by the end you might not, so you have to really, really like it.”

Her advice? “Create the anthology you can’t find.”

Gathering the materials is the next challenge. Soliciting poems is different than “open-call” submissions found in many writing magazines. Some editors have poets create pieces for specific anthologies, which sounds more like a slam-dunk than it is — anthologies take on lives of their own, and content or focus can change in the process.

Heather McHugh, editor of Best American Poetry 2007, said the selection process changed when she found “poems started making decisions for me.” Her idea of making "a book of poems I liked" evolved when poems “started with grabbing my ear like a grandmother in the Balkans, then grabbing my heart.”

The selection process also does something to the editor, she noted: “Your taste is corrupted or perverted by reading that much poetry.” Inundation alters a reader’s ability to read and pass judgment. However, that inundation also allows for exposure to incredible work and connects it to other excellent poems in a number of ways: style, sound, theme, title andmore.

What happens to the poet contracted for a poem that winds up not making the anthology? This kind of thing enters into academia when publishers want outrageous prices for printing excerpts in scholarly essays, McHugh said. Authors “can’t afford to buy the permission,” she said, “so they don’t read closely and quote” extensively or thoroughly. This skimming affects scholarship, she noted.

Technology limits bad poetry and affords the inexpensive publishing of good poetry, the panel agreed. “Quality and the making of print books self-limits bad poems,” Brown noted.

McHugh agreed, noting, “I think there are too many poems, but I’ve been teaching for 35 years.” She also pointed out, “There’s great stuff online and not in print. The Web allows for flexibility and exposure.”

I enjoy thumbing through anthologies of many different types of literature — poetry, stories about time travel or horror, horror stories, essays, even Chicken Soup collections from time to time — and I’ve often wondered how they got that way. This panel presented some interesting information on the challenges and rewards of gathering materials for anthologies.

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