A couple of days ago the New Mexico Local Poets Guild made a post inviting the Albuquerque area poets to read one book of poetry every week till the end of this year. That’s a whopping 52 books. I figured that I give it a go. I always have a book of poetry on my nightstand anyways. I will write about what I’m reading from time to time, but I’m not going to make a chore of it.
With that said I wanted to talk about the book I’m reading this week, The Best American Poetry 2011, or more particularly I want to discuss the series. Now there is a whole list of problems that arise when someone makes an anthology, especially when they claim the anthology holds the best of a particularly large group—just take a look at the current dispute between Rita Dove and Helen Vendler. No doubt The Best American Poetry series suffers from some or maybe a lot of these problems, but I will always have a soft spot for this series. It introduced me to contemporary American poetry after all.
Back in 2003, I was starting to get serious about poetry and I had no idea where to start. In the public library, which has a sadly limited collection, I was overwhelmed by the collections of dead poets. Bookstore shelves had more variety, but when staring at all names and titles I felt lost—I didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t want spend it on a book I didn’t like. Most anthologies that I came across—with words like “treasury” or “best loved” in the titles—presented the dead poets that I found in the library. No one else I knew at the time was reading poetry, so I couldn’t even get a recommendation. I picked up The Best American Poetry 2003, because it was different.
It took me a while to get through that anthology, and the truth is that only two poems stuck with me: Amy Gerstler’s “An Offer Received in this Morning’s Mail,” which I use in my creative writing classes, and Michael S. Collins’ “Six Sketches: When a Soul Breaks,” one of my favorite poems of all time. I was refreshed to discover poets who were still alive and breathing, to see writing different from the intimidating tomes in the library. (Not that I’m suggesting you shouldn’t read the poets of the past, but that was not right place for me to start.) Every year since then, I always bought a copy of The Best American Poetry. Through it I was introduced to new poets who I may have not read otherwise. I also encountered the work of more famous poets and discovered I did not care for some of them.
I feel that one of the jobs of an anthology is to introduce me to poets that I would not have encountered otherwise, to help figure out whose books I’m going to read. One of my favorite anthologies is The Poet’s Grimm, which collects poems dealing with fairy tales. As someone who loves fairy tales, I rarely see poems that deal with them (with the exception of Anne Sexton’s Transformations which is my least favorite of her books). Surprisingly, in The Poet’s Grimm I found poets, particularly women poets, dealing with experiences and dark topics that are often overlooked or dismissed elsewhere.
Unfortunately there are tons of anthologies that celebrate the same poets that have been celebrated before, and they may only alienate young readers looking for something that speaks to their own experience. There are anthologies that deal with the poets that have been overlooked, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is a famous example. I hope that editors and presses keep making anthologies that celebrate the corners of the poetry often ignored.
With that said, and considering my goal of reading a book of poetry a week for the next year, I would appreciate suggestions, especially if it is a little known poet that you feel deserves more readers.