Monday, April 27, 2009

The Politics of Anthologising

My Review of 20 Contemporary New Zealand Poets (VUP 2009) Appeared in The Christchurch Press on Saturday.
Here it is:

This anthology contains some excellent work by outstanding individual poets. As an anthology however it is less then the sum of its parts. New Zealand, for a country of its size, has a relatively large number of poetry anthologies, and this should be taken into account when approaching a newcomer to the market. Such collections also necessarily reflect the biases of taste and ideology of their editors. In light of these considerations, the current collection does not stand well up well against other recent publications. Despite this collection’s title there seems to be no concrete idea of the contemporary represented here. Younger poets such as Robert Sullivan (the youngest in the collection, born in 1967) are presented alongside Allen Curnow (1911-2001), Hone Tuwhare (1922-2008) and C. K. Stead (1932). This raises obvious questions as to the purpose of this anthology. Curnow, Elizabeth Smither, Stead and Ian Wedde all appeared in Alastair Patterson’s 15 Contemporary New Zealand Poets in 1980, and Cilla McQueen and Gregory O’Brien were featured in The New Poets of the 80’s, edited by Murray Edmond and Mary Paul. Allen Curnow's son Wystan was excluded from Jack Ross and Jan Kemp’s Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance as his birthdate, 1939, excluded him from their parameters. Though the selections presented of these poets tend toward more recent work, whether or not this is the basis of ‘contemporariness’ is, I think, a valid question. If the purpose of the anthology is to showcase the work of younger poets, this renders a large portion of the anthology essentially redundant. This space could have been better used to do so, as was the case with the earlier Patterson and Edmond/ Paul anthologies. The introduction, too, leaves much to be desired, and does not fare well in comparison to previous works. It is a mere two and a half pages, compared to Patterson’s twelve, Edmond and Paul’s just over seven, and the twelve of Ross and Kemp. There is no discussion of individual poet’s work other than a brief gloss, nor is there any real historical or literary background. The editors celebrate New Zealand poets’ embracing of new American models that arrived here in the 60s, announcing that “[William Carlos] Williams’s dictum ‘no ideas but in things’ spoke to New Zealanders’ strong sense of the materiality of everyday objects, of the landscape, of weathers and climates – and chimed with their healthy scepticism of grand ideological claims.” This is a “grand ideological claim” in and of itself. Why do New Zealanders have this “strong sense of materiality”, and is this a uniquely New Zealand trait? My own “healthy scepticism” would argue that this is a rehashing of the arguments that cultural nationalists such as Curnow, Charles Brasch and Dennis Glover made in the 1930s to 50s, which the editors mention as the outmoded ideas of a previous generation just half a page later. There is also the unthinking dismissal of the writing of women before the “feminist revolution” of the 70s, seemingly ignoring the hard-hitting treatment of issues of gender by poets such as Robin Hyde and Eileen Duggan from the 1930s onward. Comments such as that “the emergence of [women poets] was one of the major factors in opening up the range of subjects and styles that give today’s poets so much space” not only reinforce stereotypes of ‘women’s writing’, but as a truism (women write different types of poems to men therefore these poems are different) seems to mean nothing at all. The inclusion of poetics statements by the contributors adds a great deal to the reading experience, and illuminates the poems and the personality of the individual writers. Finding out what makes some of my heroes tick is something I greatly enjoyed. However this is not enough to save the book for me. I would recommend The AUP anthologies Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance and New New Zealand Poets in Performance, both edited by Jack Ross and Jan Kemp as far better value for money- they cost a bit more, but are better edited, and have the poets reading on CD as well, adding a new dimension to the poems.

I would like to add that this anthology once again disappoints in the same way that The Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams disappoints Wystan Curnow, related in his "High Culture Now! A Manifesto". While I do not personally agree with all that is stated in this polemic, a quote from it i think is pertinent here, and while Curnow is discussing the oxford anthology these criticisms can equally be levelled at this more recent one:

“A more important problem or puzzle which the editors have left to their successors is the extraordinary sameness of recent poetry or their selection of it. [...] Since one of the few claims they make is for the diversity of their collection the sameness of it must arise largely from a blindness to it. [...] Usually colloquial, and in the first person, these poems concern themselves almost exclusively with personal feelings, shifts in individual consciousness, as if this was all that poetry could do. In a decade during which the news and entertainment media increasingly personalize and privatize social and political problems, sentimentalize and sensationalize all emotion, this kind of poetry seems a part of the problem of public language in our culture rather than a critical response to it. This kind of poem was designed for the passionless people Gordon McLaughlin once accused us of being, but today everyone is passionate about everything they do, at least they had better be. The new forms of thought and feeling proposed by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry were a response to corruption of public language in America, and yet the editors of the Oxford dismiss them as another foreign fad. In this they are not alone. Policing the boundaries of the ruling forms with cheap passing shots at L=poetry is as close as we get to serious debate in the poetry world these days."

Further criticism of the hackneyed pseudo-homage to diversity played here is the selection of "minority" poets, which is unsurprising in the extreme. The editors haven't even thought to include "writing in English" or the like in the title, as Bornholt, O'Brien and Williams did so as to not have to do the real work that Wedde and McQueen did in their 1985 penguin in the inclusion of Writers working in Te Reo. There are Two Maori Writers (Hone Tuwhare and Robert Sullivan) one Pasifika Writer (Tusiata Avia) and everyone else is Pakeha-European-Palangi. As Ishmael Reed argues in the introduction to From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas 1900-2002 the "minority" poetries that are endorsed by the dominant culture and selected to be "representative" are often very different to those which said cultures would chose and endorse themselves.

More. A survey of the publishers credited in the acknowledgements shows a huge domination by the University presses of Victoria and Auckland. Of the 58 books credited nearly half (25, or 43%) are published by VUP, 18 (31%) by AUP and a measly 11 by small-press publishers (the others are 1 by Otago, one by Oxford and a Manhire poem from the London Review of Books). Though this may be representative of the state of poetry publishing in New Zealand this domination is worrying (Cf. Patrick Evans on VUP and the IML - this is given simply as a interesting parallel text rather than an endorsement of his argument - though he raises some valid questions I find much of his argument, especially it's regionalism, problematic). This anthology is far from a selection where "each of the voices ... here surprises by its fresh take on language and the world ... offer[ing] a rich, rewarding conversation".


Richard said...

Ross, this looks like this was good review. Who were the editors?

It is like they have just include the same old tired names without any attempt to go wide or deep.

Wystan Curnow's criticism rings true enough.

Ross Brighton said...

Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack, were the editors - I'd never heard of them before.
I think that including dead people (Allen Curnow) and Senior to the point of ubiquity/irrelevence (Stead) in an anthology under the banner "contemporary" is absolutely ludicrous. Hell, I thought that Jack Ross and Jan Kemp's use of the term, and distinguishing between "contemporary" and "new" in their series of anthologies was semantically strange. But this one takes the cake. It's illuminating, I think, that it was co-published by VUP and Carcanet - rather than a real literary-historical or scholarly exercise, or an attempt to bring (actual) contemporary (and, it follows, not-yet established or well-known) writers to the attention of the wider population, it's a cynical marketing exercise, playing it safe in order to sell commercially safe and sound (and mostly VUP-published)poets, poets who have already proved to be viable and safe in the domestic market to the international market.

Richard said...

Johnston is a published poet - not bad. (poetry wise he's a bit conservative...he is bit minimal and sometimes too "clever" but he is intelligent.) I don't know Marsack.

I agree with your points here substantially. I'm not sure who these things happen but there are so many (good, young, old, neither or either, unsung) writers, and, seriously, I am not concerned about myself (although one would love to be in an anthology IF one felt one (I)was worthy, & had published enough...) but I agree, even Jack's books/CDs - good as they were, missed the mark (I was left off the second lot despite I am about the same age and a boozing mate of Bob Orr's! But of course Bob is far more well known..but that begs a Knowing Jack he'll do another [it was big hard job, but he is a fanatic for completeness!!])

If we are talking writing up to the minute or near so we need to get away from Robert Sullivan et al.Robert S. (very nice fellow) I have heard read so many times (he has heard me also) - he is almost an old man. There are all the Titus poets and contributors (or many of them), there others also such as yourself (in Brief) and in other publications, mags such as Poetry NZ [I have been in that about 3 times], (various [publications in the SI), and such as Blackmail, Kilmog* and much else (Micheal Stevens stuff)...some of that enthusiasm was in Brunton's and Michelle Leggott's book of the 60s - I think that John Geraets wanted younger poets (when he took over Brief de 1996). Jack does a god job (as he does try to get a mix...). But there are others. It is not the age only but the style and evidence of new ideas, new ways or writing etc etc

*Which and whatever is still going and is inventive or innovative.

Someone needs to do an anthology along the lines of some of the British ones that came out (Alvarez's and others such as those doing the Grosseteste Press people etc)) as well as the Allen US poets and moving on and through the language poets etc...something in such as that in NZ (it has occurred in the past....actually to her credit E. Caffin writes well about NZ poetry in the Oxford Book...but it all needs to go further.

Not just age and not just following any "line" but the "tradition" of making it new etc. Every anthology of course has ideological limits of some kind. Johnston is relatively conservative.

You either need a great individual or various panel who all disagree!

[BTW I started back though "Earthly Sonnets..." by Ian Wedde (I also found by chance he is the Poet Laureate!) and I am finding it much more rewarding and can see your points and also C.K.Stead (bless his rather (writingly) conservative socks!) is very keen on Wedde's particular that book, I was bit jaded when I read it before... But it often happens that I read a book few times before I like it (or I find things in it).]

Keep this Blog going if you have time...RT

Richard said...

Yes, Contemporary poets virtually excludes Allan Curnow and Stead except as background information, say in an introduction...which could be quite long. Editorials should (as well as being substantive) also have a poetic or a "politic' but be open.

A few poems from many and more poems for the core of 20 or so...but leave such as Sullivan and all those others right out.

Jen Crawford, you, me, Tony Green, Ted Jenner, Mark Young, the Michaels!, Direen, Jack...other young (or new) poets - with the stated intention of putting others in at a later time*...Rickett's book was quite good but not quite the ticket. [But NOT just Titus and Brief...go wider also.]

*The way Warwick Brown showcases so many artists in his books points a way if not exactly what one wants.

New and Inventive New NZ Poets - so we don't repeat Pirie's The Next Wave. None of those old guys who have been anthologized forever.

Ross Brighton said...

I Think Jack and Jan did a good job with their anthologies, including people (especially in the "Classic" one) who are otherwise overlooked (MK Joseph, for instance).

Buy Yeah, maybe - I'd like to see an (obviously much smaller) NZ version of either one of the smaller and less (self-consiously)canon-constructing anthologies of the US & UK - like Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell's American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, and their anthology of Women Poets; Maggie O'Sullivan's Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK; Or that UK anthology OTHER: British and Irish Poetry since 1970.

But I'm not sure. The NZ market is flooded with anthologies (mostly of pretty poor quality - "themed" books aimed at either casual readers or the gift market) - adding to that cacophony seems like a somewhat dire exercise. I remember someone who was quite knowledgeable on the subject telling me that NZ may well have the highest rate of anthologies to population in the world - we're over-saturated with them.

As for the Donald Allen, we do have our equivalents - the Patterson and Baysting anthologies, for two (and then Big Smoke from a more historical perspective). What hasn't been properly done (aside from the Edmond/Paul), and may need to be (with appropriate scholarly rigour) is the late 70s/80s to 90s, and that would be difficult, as there is such a rift, a kind of two-camp canon, which gets increasingly extreme as conservativism, firstly represented by the former "Wellington School" (Baxter, O'Sullivan, et al), Then the reactionary ruralism of Sam Hunt and Brian Turner, and worse once the VUP school emerges, and it's primary critic is Patrick Evans, coming from a distinctly regionalist school of thought, and echoing elements of 1930s cultural nationalism. Trying to reconcile that with the progression from FREED etc through AND/SPLASH/Parallax/Antic/Spiral etc through ABDOTWW to Titus, Potroast, and a bunch of smaller publications, and the increasing resorting of innovative NZ writers to publishing outisde NZ (as I have done with [at a guess] 90% of my work) seems like an unbearable weight - unless you had multiple concurrent volumes, which wouldn't allow for cross-over (cf Manhire's beginings with concrete poetry, which he has erased from his Collected, Sam Hunt's initial publications in Freed and associated magazines, etc etc).