June 24, 2006

We Live for Danger

A few months ago, when Sarabande first published the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, there was some gnashing of teeth about the value of the book. Eh. Now that the dust has settled, the book remains a reliable bedisde companion: I pick it up, I read, I put it down, I find myself wanting to write more poems and better poems. That is my definition of a useful poetry anthology.

For those more concerned with the politics of using it to teach--well, any teacher worth her salt knowns to take the identity of the editors into account, and never teach anything as an absolute survey of what is "best." (Or even what is "legitimate," though I think that's a willful misreading of the title, ignoring its origin in the Frost epigraph.) For those overwrought with such concerns, go join the Garrison Keillor debate on Wom-po. Back to Legitimate Dangers.

I thought Mark Doty's introduction was a clever knitting-together of the aesthetics of the book, and I liked this line: "[the poets] are concerned with the creation of a voice, a presence on the page meant to be an experience in itself, not necessarily to refer to one that's already taken place." This seems like a good principle to work with, even for those who are working in a confessional or narrative spirit, because it forces attention to the language and moment of the page. It amazes me to this day how many poets draft and edit as if they were working in prose, with line breaks, and care little for the economy and variety in their word choice.

A few yays and nays:
Poets whose selections drove me to buy their books: Matthew Zapruder, Dan Chiasson, Josh Bell.
Poets whose work benefitted from being pulled out of book-length context: Juliana Spahr, poems from Nick Flynn's Blind Huber.
Poets whose work becomes slightly *less* interesting in the anthologized setting: Richard Siken, Spencer Reese.

Perhaps the oddest feature of the book is the "additional reading" list at the end, which essentially serves as a "runner-up" list of poets who were eligible according to the criteria, yet must not have quite made the cut. There I find poets who had seemed obvious and odd excludions while reading the book--Sarah Manguso, Deborah Landau--and a few well-deserving friends--Erika Meitner, Ted Genoways. Ted in particular is a missed opportunity, because his work is truly loyal to form, versus many of the "formalist" poets that ARE included, but who are only using form to ironic effect.

And yet there's STILL no mention of Patrick Phillips, author of Chattahoochee, or Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart. But maybe my centrist tendencies are beginning to show, because Phillips might write just a bit too much about his family, and Calvocoressi may be just a bit too rooted in American history. But damn it, they are good.

To be fair, I should acknowledge my own brush with having been anthologized, in the 2005 Best New Poets book published by the staff of Meridian, at the University of Virginia. It was a wonderful experience, but left me with an odd dilemma this year: another magazine editor asked to nominate me for the 2006 BNP volume. I declined, since I had already been in it the year before, but found myself wondering: Am I no longer eligible as a "new" poet? Does that make me an OLD poet? I don't even have a book out! I wasn't even old enough (or bold enough) to be included in Legitimate Dangers!

Anthologies: beautiful but cruel.

1 comment:

Don said...

Thank you for this great post.