From The Best American Poetry:
Jericho: Could you discuss how you came to edit The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry? What was your initial response when asked to do this? Had you ever had the idea to take on this type of an endeavor? How did you manage and balance the work of reading and compiling? Were there poems or poets you “discovered” in the process? Were there poems or poets you found yourself appreciating less or more than you had in the past? How was this different in excitement, anxiety, and actual logistics than editing an edition of The Best American Poetry? Do you think you would ever do such a thing again?
Rita: Editing an edition of Best American Poetry was a lateral enterprise: One year’s worth of poetry, no need to probe for trends, trajectories, project the future… A year doesn’t yield a viable test group. So to choose the best poems of a single year — besides the obvious strain of so much reading, the requisite decisions, indecisions and reconsiderations — was no big deal. Also, another huge difference: Since the choices were taken from magazine publications rather than books, there were no reprint permissions problems to speak of.
But the Penguin folks wanted the entire century. One hundred years of poetry that had been in books with a copyright between 1900 and 2000! This was a very big deal indeed. So why did I agree to do it? Call me crazy — and I have called myself that many times during the past four years — but I felt the urge to give something back to the literary community. Was that naive? Very! And yet when Elda Rotor, director of Penguin Classics, asked me to consider her offer, the entire poetic trajectory of the century flashed before me. I kid you not — it was eerie. Of course, not every point on the arc was clear — there were plenty of foggy spots, even some downright black-outs — but the general outline presented itself in one flash. Yes, in my mind the twentieth century had its own distinct identity, with contours made more defined by the end of an entire millennium. The detective in me was aroused, the desire to investigate more deeply. But the main reason was that I would have an excuse – no, the duty — to reread all those extraordinary poems I had encountered in my life, plus discover important poems I might have missed for one reason or another. I would have an excuse to set aside the demands of daily life – all for the sake of poems that I loved, admired, even those I had pushed back against, poems whose message I might loathe and yet found powerful in their approach to language, to human expression. I would have an excuse to learn and indulge. At that point, at the beginning of my journey through the American century of poetry, I did not yet have to dwell on the hard practicalities – that I would have to make difficult decisions, to offer myself up to multi-faceted attacks, to be second-guessed and ridiculed by nay-sayers spurred by their own nefarious agendas.
The journey took about four years. I approached it as I often approach writing poetry: I opened myself to the century’s many pushes and shoves, I read voraciously, indiscriminately at first — gimme some Frost, ah, there’s dear Bishop, mmm Crane needs to be in the mix, of course, and Dunbar, and Cullen, and and and… . Reading the letters of one poet might pique my interest in another, and so on. In time, patterns began to emerge — different camps, surprising entanglements, confusing juxtapositions — these patterns quite often resisted easy assignment to one group or another.
Would I do it again? Hell, no! But I’m glad I did it this one time.
Jericho: Why is it that poets and critics feel free to publicly and privately attack a master like Gwendolyn Brooks (and subtly attack all black women poets) for no reason other than the fact that Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”?
Rita: Jericho, your bafflement is as profound as mine. I fear the answer isn’t pretty. Maybe that’s why you and I — who prefer not to dwell too long in the company of hate, malice, and selfishness — are baffled instead. I asked the same of Helen Vendler in my rebuttal to her weird attack in the New York Review of Books recently. Well, this much perhaps: People identify with their heroes, and when they perceive an attack on those heroes, even if it’s only happening in their own deluded minds, they will try to fight back, and in the process sometimes turn into shamelessly unreasonable proxies. They scream and kick and punch into thin air, hoping to land a hit. What does it say about Vendler that out of the 175 poets in the Penguin Anthology she chose Gwendolyn Brooks and Melvin Tolson and Amiri Baraka to try to skewer me? Frankly, I felt a bit embarrassed for her — and perplexed that someone who had once championed my work could expose herself with such a shallow paradigm.
Jericho: To be honest, when I finally got a copy of the anthology, I expected the major criticism of it to be the names of usual suspects collected in it. Surprisingly, the largest criticism has been just the opposite. Though all of the poets are well known, richly awarded, and widely read, one critic accused you of merely making a multicultural book. Every one of those minority poets come as no surprise to me as figures that would be anthologized considering how much they are regularly taught and reviewed. I know counting is now taken as a sign of one who clings unnecessarily to a past of oppression, but only about a fourth of these poets are people of color—a relatively small number if you think about the number of people of color who may have written a good poem in a 100-year period in the United States. Given these facts, do you have any response to such odd criticism?
Rita: I don’t know if this line of attack is a sign of despair or fury on part of some critics who define themselves as white — whatever that means in our mongrel society. Are they trying to make a last stand against the hordes of up-and-coming poets of different skin complexions and different eye slants? Were we — African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans — only acceptable as long as these critics could stand guard by the door to examine our credentials and let us in one by one?
Toward the end of her review, Helen Vendler reveals much about the skewed thought processes that seem to inform these critics when she writes: “Of the twenty poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian-American), and five are white (two men, three women).” My husband was in Germany tending to his sick mother when the review came out, so I emailed him a scan. Half an hour later, he emailed me back. “I can’t believe Vendler topped off her diatribe with bean counting so offensive, she’s put herself in league with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan”, he wrote. “Has she lost all historical perspective? In juxtaposing ‘white’ with ‘minority communities’, counting among the latter everybody who does not adhere to her imaginary Caucasian purity principles, she incriminates herself. Just like the Nazis tagged every German as Jewish who had a Jewish grandparent, just like the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk ascribed to the ‘one drop rule’, she lumps together everybody who is not ‘rassenrein‘ [racially pure] white, including all those of the ‘fifteen from minority communities’ who are of mixed racial heritage.”
Jericho: What do you think it signifies in American poetry today when those we think of as staunchly ensconced members of the establishment admit to counting the number of poets from minority communities in your book? Why, for their entire careers, haven’t they ever noticed the number of poets from majority communities in other anthologies? Is it hilarious or infuriating to you when a critic has the nerve to note that most of the poets of any race will never attain the goal of writing great poetry without admitting that everything they’ve read in the past suggests just the opposite?
Rita: These are damning questions for which there are no defensible explanations. It signifies that we are not a post-racial society; that even so-called “intelligent,” “sensitive,” “liberal” people who call themselves “humanists” are often warped by their preconceived notions of class, race, and privilege. And yes, it is infuriating . . . but then I have to laugh because the last laugh, of course, will be on those who believe they have so much to lose. I remember my father telling me, whenever I complained about unfair treatment, that at least I knew what I was able to do, and that was what counted. He also said: “Whatever you do, don’t grow bitter. Becoming bitter means they’ve won.”