To a packed house of aspiring writers and members of the Stonybrook MFA program community in Southampton, David Lehman and Bill Henderson shared stories about their experiences as creators of successful anthologies. Henderson has been at the helm of the Pushcart Prize annual for 35 years, while Lehman began the Best American Poetry series in 22 years ago. Poet Julie Sheehan, who teaches in the Stonybrook MFA program, moderated the discussion. Although the anthologies differ in many particulars, Lehman and Henderson agree that their success is due in large measure to the vitality of the work that is featured in each year's volume. "The writing keeps getting better and better," said Henderson, who relies on nominations made by the editors of little magazines and small book presses. For the Pushcart volume, Henderson picks the prose, while a changing roster of poets picks the poetry. Henderson and Lehman agreed that among the more satisfying features of their work is the discovery of work by writers they haven't heard of, in publications they've never before seen. "That is a happy moment," Lehman said. The audience asked questions about subjects ranging from the fate of high literature in the Internet era to the process of securing permissions for an anthology, Favorite Q & A of the night: "What do you say to the person who corners you at a party and asks, 'why isn't my poetry in your book this year?'" Henderson's answer: "Because you're a lousy poet."
David Lehman with poets Susan Baran (center) and Marc Cohen.