Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ron Silliman on Anthologies and year-end lists

Ron Silliman has a great post about the futility of trying to make top [insert number] lists, and anthologies speak for the diversity and complexity of poetry written in English today.

It is interesting to ask what community is represented by the poet who proposes him- or herself as the representative of some transcendent value (the way Jack Gilbert cast himself as the doomed spokesperson of beauty & inner nobility), but mostly it is very sad. The isolato in American literature is little more than a tribune for the most imperial and corporate of impulses, even when – as in Melville, as in Olson, as in Gilbert – he is conflicted & brilliant. If you are responsible to no one, you are in the exact same position that capital and profit play in the world economy. 

What might be noble in such attempts at outsider independence – a resistance to being used by others for purposes that one might find repellant – nonetheless reminds me of the flaw at the heart of Timothy Leary’s old slogan: Tune in, turn on, drop out. There simply is no “out.” It’s as identifiable a location in the game of life as any other. We are all of us on this planet together. You can choose which side you are on, but there is no “nobody’s side” to pick. That one already belongs to Mr. Murdoch, the Koch brothers & their buds. 

But even “represents a community” does not mean that we sing with the same voice, or to the same tune even. The problem with the Dove anthology is that of any “best of” collection. It is not that I’m in the book while Rae Armantrout is not, strange as that may seem, or Paula Gunn Allen instead of Judy Grahn or Sherman Alexie instead of Simon Ortiz, and it is certainly not that Dove actually included 175 poets. It is that she did not include at least 175 others for whom one can make at least as strong a case for representation. The Penguin anthology fails to represent America because the reality is far more complex than one book can articulate. 
It's interesting to think about this at this moment, not because I'm making lists as the year is about to end. It's interesting for me, because I plan to send out a manuscript some time soon, and I'm asking myself all kinds of questions about reputation and visibility and distribution.(Like I only have to make my choice for people to fall all over themselves to want to publish me. Ha!) I have no doubt that when (if) someone at a publishing house reads my manuscript, they'll be asking themselves questions that somewhat echo mine.

And that's when I realise how much I lucked out the last time round and how much the process is not going to be about poetry at all.

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