October 2009 – January 2010
An Interview with David Lehman, Editor of Best American Poetry and Molly Peacock, Editor of Best Canadian Poetry in English. Conducted by Jason Schneiderman.
Jason: Molly, David; I’m awed by how much you both do to promote poetry. David, you’ve been editing Best American Poetry for over two decades. Molly, you just oversaw the publication of the first issue of Best Canadian Poetry. I wanted to start by asking you both, what has been the biggest surprise of working on your respective projects?
DL: What continues to surprise me is just how many obstacles there are in the way of any effort at championing poetry, enlarging its readership, and honoring the poets. Even when you succeed – and The Best American Poetry, now in its twenty-second year, has succeeded beyond expectations – it sometimes seems like a losing battle. Perhaps that is one thing that draws some of us to poetry: on a bad day, it can seem that the worthiest causes face the longest odds. The newspapers ignore poetry except to proclaim the impending death of an art form, and when magazines or book reviews do allot some precious space to a poetry book, they employ notoriously malignant reviewers. Well, poetry will outlast newspapers, though it can give us no pleasure to see them fold. The Best American Poetry does its part to lift the morale of the poets chosen for our pages each year, and I’m glad of that, but it’s sad that so many poets are prone to feelings of resentment, bitterness, and competitive envy.
On the other hand, it’s very exciting that people in their 20s and 30s, knowing all they do about the problems we face, aspire with such sweet intensity and high ambition to join the bardic ranks. There is a lot of talent out there. Many more good poems are being written and published each year than the gloom-sayers will admit. And of course it delights me that there is a Best Canadian Poetry under Molly Peacock’s general editorship. The impulse has spread abroad. Christoph Buchwald’s Jahrbuch der Lyrik has had a good long run in Germany. The Best New Zealand Poems, which the editors say they “shamelessly modeled” on “the successful US paperback anthology,” made its debut in 2001, and The Best Australian Poetry (published by UQP) has been going since 2003; Anthony Lawrence chose the poems for the 2004 edition, John Tranter for 2007, and Alan Wearne in 2009. For a while there were even two competing “best” anthologies in Australia.
MP: Thanks back to you, David. I’m delighted to participate in this conversation. About that idea of surprise: part of the reason I undertook Best Canadian Poetry in English was to be surprised by the work of Canadian poets. I’m not nearly as familiar with Canadian poetry as I am with American poetry, so I never know what to expect. Since we’re just beginning, I’ve only worked with two guest editors so far. I was flabbergasted that there were only six poets out of fifty in each volume who overlapped. It’s a big landscape out there! I understand what you mean about the obstacles. Having helped to start Poetry in Motion with the Poetry Society of America about the same time as you started Best American, I was surprised that the poetry placards lasted as long as they did in New York — fifteen years — though they’re gone temporarily. They’ll be back on the buses, soon. The program still exists here in Canada, thriving on the Toronto subways. Because I am a citizen of both countries and go back and forth to New York all the time (though I live in Toronto) I run a continual compare and contrast essay in my head about poetry in my two countries. Poetry, even from small presses, is still reviewed in The Globe and Mail here, as well as in other newspapers across Canada. I fear that will decline as the newspapers decline. But in terms of poetry as news that stays news, it strikes me that in both countries the people who love poetry seem to find each other, whether that’s in Moose Jaw or Miami.
JS: Molly—thank you for reminding me of the full title your anthology—Best Canadian Poetry in English. This brings me to the question of nationality. David, in looking through The Best American Poetry 2009, I noticed that Michael Johnson is unambiguously Canadian; Jade Nutter was born a British citizen (though she now works and lives in Minnesota); Derek Walcott is from St. Lucia; and Jim Harrison is coy about his birthplace. How capacious is Best American in its conception of “American”? Do you struggle not only with the idea of “best poem” but also the idea of “American poem”? And Molly, do you think that there would ever be a Best Canadian Poetry in French? You make a wonderful argument for a distinctly Canadian poem in your introduction. Would you consider, alongside the additional list of 50 poems, a list of Québécois Poems or First Nations Poems?
DL: We have always constructed “American” in the broadest sense to include Canada and the Caribbean. From the start the poets who served as guest editors of The Best American Poetry wanted to be ecumenical, and this predilection tallied with my own instincts. I favor the idea of being as comprehensive and inclusive as possible when surveying the landscape for an enterprise that confers, in the end, an exclusive distinction. The struggle I have is not with unsolvable questions of poetic value, the definition of “America,” or the use of a superlative. The struggle I have is simply keeping up with the plethora of poems and poets out there begging for a hearing.
MP: We are always thinking of La Meilleure Poésie Canadienne en Français, though that would be quite a different enterprise. As far as First Nations poets are concerned, we will have poetry by at least one First Nations poet in our second volume. As the Series Editor, it’s really important to me to find that broad sweep of voices and to include it in the anthology. That’s why our longlist of 100 poems is so crucial. As for how we see the anthology in the North American context, that’s a very different matter from the way David sees it. His is the point of view from what Canadians feel is the dominant culture to the south. Let’s make an analogy from another part of the world. Think of Big China and little Thailand. Thai culture always feels the mammoth culture of China at its doors. Canada isn’t little, area-wise, but it has had a unique challenge as it established its voice and cultural identity (perhaps I should say identities). Because of this challenge, the country got the rather amazing idea that its voice or voices, both for its own citizens and for the world, would be established by… its writers! As Canadian writers describe the Canadian experience, a nation is formed. Best Canadian Poetry in English is supported both by the national and the provincial arts councils. Because Tightrope Books receives its funding from the government, we actually have to report to the citizenship status of each of our poets. Coming from New York, this shocked me at first. It’s not something I’ll bet that Scribner gives a thought to. Yet the Canadian government’s investment in its artists moves me. To be valued in such way is quite an incredible shift in the priorities of how a nation operates, and how it views its poets. I do feel that poets are more cherished in Canada.
JS: One of the things that I really like about both the Best American Poetry and Poetry in Motion is that they’ve never been coercive. I feel like a lot of the people looking to “promote” poetry either want to chastise poets and redirect their work, or chastise the public for not being good readers. I once saw Nadine Gordimer speak, and her defense of “the book” was couched in an attack on television and movies — which seemed counterproductive to me. Poetry in Motion and your anthologies don’t exactly take a laissez faire approach. They definitely put poetry in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise be reading poetry, but without the guilt-trip. I was wondering if you guys get a lot of “conversion” letters from people who’ve discovered poetry because of your editorial efforts. Can you share any insights on what it is that makes a person a poetry lover or reader? And as poetry lovers yourselves, what is it like trying keep up with a full year’s worth of poetry?
MP: As anyone who talks to teenagers knows, poetry that comes at a desperate moment in a life can feel as if it saves that life. Poetry lovers really, really adore poetry because they engage with it on so many levels, but particularly with the sense that the art responds in a crisis, an emotional one or an intellectual one. We do get fan letters for Best Canadian, but we haven’t quite been around long enough to get “conversion” letters. However, I am on the Board of RPO, Representative Poetry On Line, a fabulous poetry website which has built on the work of scholars of poetry in English from the University of Toronto. RPO gets conversion letters from people who run across poems on line that sink immediately into their cores. It’s very moving to me when this happens. There are people on dialysis machines, people on third rounds of chemotherapy, who discover poetry because it is so fearless in the face of disaster.
Yet, interestingly, the older I get, I don’t expect sudden mass conversion to this intense art. Poetry takes time and focus and investment in language no matter what poet of which aesthetic conviction has written it. As an enthusiast, I personally am nourished by a huge variety of poems. Like David, I am not interested in representing a school of poetry, even though my own work has been identified with a school. I admire enterprises that go across aesthetic lines and beyond them. As David, whom I esteem, says about keeping up with poetry, yes, it’s overwhelming (but a bit less so in Canada with about fifty literary magazines), but it feeds my restless intellect as well. My gamble, the gamble of Stephanie Bolster and A.F. Moritz, our first two guest editors, and that of Halli Villegas, the publisher of Tightrope Books, is that a wider audience for poetry is out there. The vectors that have converged for our marvelous sales are the excellence of the poems and the variety of the poets. That’s what excites me, and that’s what inspires this enterprise. Jason, I really appreciate the way you’ve moderated this conversation, and David, I really enjoy having had the chance to compare and contrast with you.
DL: Thank you, Molly – and let me add my thanks to hers, Jason, for arranging this dialogue. Like you, I don’t want to chastise anyone except the chastisers. Coercion is the enemy of poetry. I can’t do better than Frank O’Hara in “Personism.” After noting that a strategy of “forced feeding” backfires, he writes, “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too.” O’Hara is being deliberately pugnacious here, but his effort to separate poetry from obligation – whether the poet’s obligation to society or society’s obligations to the poet – is important. To perpetuate the audience for poetry is a worthy objective but guilt is a losing strategy. And the fortunes of our art form do not require us to refuse the charms of Mad Men on television or the Kurosawa retrospective at the Film Forum.
I don’t know why some otherwise reasonable people become social Darwinists when it comes to assigning value to contemporary art and poetry. Sure, there is such a thing as bad poetry. There’s always plenty on hand. But there’s no reason to talk back to it. I like O’Hara’s refusal to deal with a bad poem. He is convinced that it will “slip into oblivion” without his needing to give it a push.
Much of the mail I get is very gratifying. People write that a volume in the series, or a particular poem, had a decisive effect on them. Contributors say how happy they are to be included. They call it an honor. They’ve been reading the Best American Poetry from cover to cover for twenty years and now their own work is in there. I have heard from more than one contributor that their initial appearance in a volume of Best American Poetry was the best thing to happen to them in their professional lives. Even allowing for exaggeration, that’s quite a statement. Some of the poems we have featured have become poetry “standards” (in the sense that “Body and Soul” is a jazz standard). It’s nice to think that we played a hand in that or in the renewed popularity of a device like the abecedarius or a form like the sestina or pantoum. I also like the way the poems speak among themselves. Julie Sheehan had a poem in BAP 2005, “Hate Poem,” that inspired Martha Silano’s “Love” in BAP 2009. There are other instances.
Poetry is unkillable. The very word is too useful. It remains the term of choice for a certain kind of grace (as when a journalist observes Oscar Peterson’s fingers on the piano keys) or eloquence (as when political commentators repeat that “you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose”). When he found out that I write poetry, a software manufacturer congratulated me on practicing “a craft that will never become obsolete” – unlike last year’s version of this year’s operating system. Whether or not he meant to be ironic, the irony is he’s right.
The desire to write poetry is a precious thing. It turns into a need on the one hand and a habit or practice on the other. If we were making a list of reasons to stay alive, and it seems we keep needing to do so, poetry would occupy a cherished place on the list. We have the testimony of too many people from any and every class, category, and income bracket, to doubt it. To the extent that these anthologies of ours bring to the publishing of poetry the same imaginative energy that goes into the writing of a poem, we will have succeeded in doing something important for the art itself, for our poets, and for readers prepared to embrace poetry if only it were presented to them in an appealing way.
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