Wednesday Mar 29

hoppenthaler The Anthology in My Head

I’m going to let you all in on the secret, why I’ve devoted so much time and energy— for no pay—on A Poetry Congeries. Listen.

When the important Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, edited by David Bottoms and Dave Smith, appeared in 1985, I had just embarked upon life as an MFA student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Smith was my teacher. My reading in these younger poets, at that point, had been meager at best, though I was a great fan of several of the poets included, especially Michael Waters, William Heyen, and Ai. Most of the poets represented I had never heard of, much less read, and so the anthology was of great and lasting importance to me as I struggled to connect voice and style in a way that mattered to me. As Smith and Bottoms describe it in the collection’s preface, “The Anthology in Our Heads,” the examination of these poets provided me “that acute excitement which is partly recognition of the art extended and partly delight in the future becoming visible.”

Years later, I was asked to join the editorial ranks of Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art, a small, regional journal based in West Virginia. After the original three founding editors moved on, Mary Stewart and I, with an eye to making Kestrel more of an international journal, worked hard for about twelve years to make it so. We remained true to a core mission of the journal, to represent the best writing and art West Virginia could offer (and there was much of it), but we would now do our best to have it represented alongside the best writing and art we could get from the world at large. And we did so, and by juxtaposing the regional with aesthetically-diverse work by Seamus Heaney, Lucille Clifton, Jean Valentine, Michael Harper, Medbh McGuckian Paul Muldoon, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Maxine Kumin, Natasha Trethewey, Gerald Stern and so many more, we were confident that we were providing our readers with the sort of experience Smith and Bottoms suggest.

But time moved on, and so did Mary and I. Kestrel has gone back to being a good, regional journal. My copy of the Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets is falling apart, and it’s out of print. It’s difficult for me to turn on my students to a particular poem in it without going through the rigmarole of making copies or, as my department prefers, scanning it and sending them a PDF. Technology, for better or worse, has changed the literary landscape—whether, ultimately, for better or worse, I’m not yet sure. But, realizing so many young people were reading their poetry online and not in printed books or anthologies, and knowing as well that the price of printed anthologies is prohibitive to many, has led me to make this online anthology I’ve named A Poetry Congeries.

A congeries, from the Latin congerere, according to Merriam-Webster, is an aggregation, “a group, body, or mass composed of many distinct parts or individuals,” “the collecting of units or parts into a mass or whole,” or “the condition of being so collected.” It is, therefore, in a sense, when editorial discretion is added to the mix, a great definition for the sort of anthology I have in my own head, one that includes not only Pulitzer Prize winners but also promising young (or not so young) poets who’ve had little or no publication history. I find them in books, journals, on Facebook, by word of mouth. Many I know, others I’ve never met. Some will never find or make the luck needed to secure a place in the constellation of public poets, some already have or, first books in hand, are well on their way. I publish each poet only once.

I wish I could include many of the poets I published in Kestrel who have now passed, are inaccessible to me, or have chosen not to return my requests for a poem or two. Shame on the latter as what I continue to build here, with the assistance of Connotation Press Editor-in-Chief Ken Robidoux, is a living anthology, one that, I choose to believe, will be forever accessible for free. It is a living snapshot of what a poem might look like or be in our cultural moment, a tool for generations of scholars and educators to come, a space where all, privileged or not, may tarry and think about poetry and what it provides us. Now, when I want a student to have a look at a particular sort of poem as she struggles to find her own way as a poem-maker, I can send her a link on which to click. So can you. Pass it on.