Welcome to the second of seven days of surprises, a week of gratitude! After reading my first book, you may not believe it, but I am thankful for my childhood. Rita Dove won the Pulitzer Prize when I was in elementary school, and she was poet laureate by the time I was in high school. I imagine I don't have to tell you what seeing her face on posters in the schools and libraries where I was reared meant to my sense of possibility for living my life as a poet whose work actually reaches people.
The author of several books of poetry, a
novel, and a book of essays, Dove is also a playwright and librettist. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. When I was told that I’d have the chance to blog here this week, I had just finished reading her introduction to The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. I immediately asked her if she would answer a few questions I’ve always had about her life, her poetry, and her work as an editor that I could share with this week's readers. Gracious as ever, she agreed. In memory of Sterling Brown, Allen Ginsberg, and Sylvia Plath, poets without whom I could not exist, here is my conversation with Rita Dove:
Jericho: First, I have to ask what it is they put in the water in Ohio that helps to so well nourish some of my favorite writers. Do you and Toni Morrison and A. Van Jordan and so many others, from Charles Chesnutt to Virginia Hamilton to James Wright, share the secret of a statewide witch doctor who traveled by foot to bless your mother’s bellies? Is there a sense of kinship or community among Ohio poets and writers who have gone on to wield the English language in such interesting and useful ways?
Rita: I'll never tell! Ohio does have a way of turning out golden children, doesn't she? As a kid, I felt that my state was special. Many children harbor similar sentiments, probably, but the myths I stirred into my Nestle's chocolate were pretty convincing, I thought: #1: The fact that Ohio was the first stop on the underground railroad was a point of pride, mixed with terror that a slave had to flee so far north in order to escape the south; Ohio borders Canada, after all. #2: Geographically-speaking, no one claims Ohio. I've always thought of Ohio as the Midwest, but Indiana considers us too urban, too industrial -- think Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, all leading to Pittsburgh -- to be anything but part of the East, while Pennsylvanians laugh at that idea. It's a crazy state for contrasts, anyway -- the industrial north, farmland in the west, Appalachia in the southeastern corner, Cincinnati bordering the South, perched on the Ohio River like a riverboat queen. Add in the Erie Canal and the Indian mounds -- just enough Go-West-Young-man mystique and Indian lore to remind us that we're merely visitors on this slice of land . . . so Ohioans have no easily defined identity, which gives us an edge. If I may generalize wildly, I think of Ohioans as people who take stock of where they stand and, like the word Ohio -- "round on the sides and high in the middle" -- always weigh both ends against the center. No, I'm really serious; it all factors in.
Jericho: I want to go back in time just a bit and ask you about your conception of what a book of poetry is and what you notice yourself doing consistently each time you create one. Sonata Mulattica, your most recent volume, seems to me a series of poems that are the result of several viable answers to a single query. Some earlier books you’ve written, on the other hand, read much more in the way of “collections” of poetry bound by your own sense of juxtaposition and trajectory. Can you speak to any of this? How many poems do you have before you know you're in the world of a book rather than a section of a book? What comes first for you as a poet, the poems individually or the book idea that leads to poems?
Rita: The poems always come first; I've never planned out a book before writing the first poem. Even with the books that have a definable frame -- Thomas and Beulah, Mother Love, Sonata Mulattica -- I was blindsided by their construction. I had already published a sequence of six poems about my grandfather before realizing that I had an entire marriage to explore, both Thomas's and Beulah's viewpoints. Mother Love began with three poems in tribute to Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, and the fact that my daughter was approaching adolescence; Persephone's story lured me deeper and deeper until, when I finally came up for air, I was surrounded by sonnets. When I stumbled upon George Bridgetower, I started looking into his story simply because I was fascinated by the astounding fact of his existence. I had no desire to write another sequence; I didn't want to be pigeonholed, so I fought the impulse of taking the story toward poetry for a long time.
As far as the books (which are more or less loosely-grouped collections) are concerned, my process is more of an interior push and shove: I resist the impulse to think of the book until the manuscript has accumulated a heft that becomes overwhelming. Poems are sketched out and filed, allowed to exist on their own for a while, find their way back on my desk, and so on. I write in fragments, so I will have many poems languishing in severely fragmented states for months. Revisions can range from adding a word in one draft, a line in another, cutting a stanza in a third. On a good night, I may work on up to seven poems, each in a different stage toward completion. These drafts are stored in colored folders; finished poems go into a black spring-back binder.) Gradually, certain poems beg to be together. It's like I can feel them searching for their tribe. When the specific gravity of certain poems becomes too much to bear, I start spreading poems them out on the floor. I walk among them, I talk to them: "Where do you want to be? Why are you sitting out there all alone -- too good to fraternize, or are you shy, do you need someone to hold your hand?" I sing to them, listen for answers. It can get pretty crazy; I make sure no one sees me doing this, not even my husband.
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: Let’s revisit your very comprehensive introduction, which I think of as a useful text for introduction to American poetry courses. You mention having a “clear vision” of what you wanted the book to show. How do you think of that vision as different from any other anthologist’s vision of American poetry? How does it contrast to Lehman’s The Oxford Book of American Poetry or Nelson’s Modern American Poetry or Ramazani’s The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry?
Rita: My concern was with the poem, not the trend. I was interested less in formulating theories or plopping poets into schools, when I knew as a poet myself how ill-fitting such classifications can be. So rather than concentrate on showing how certain poets fit into a certain camp, I tried to show through their poems how the times in which they lived provoked fitting artistic responses to their individual concerns, their troubles and joys, but also to the social tragedies and triumphs that defined their and their contemporaries' lives. As poets, reacting artistically with, to and against our environment, we tend to look at poetry both from the intimate perspective of the insider as well as from the vantage point of the observer who needs to take in the whole picture.
Jericho: In your introductory letter to “T.,” you metaphorize literary forbears as trees with the names of poetic descendants printed on corresponding leaves. For instance, from a sycamore like Creeley sprouts the work of Kay Ryan, and Terrance Hayes is “latched onto the thick coiled tubers of Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell.” With which trees do you believe your own writing should be most closely associated?
Rita: OMG -- I haven't thought that far! The very idea makes me want to start biting my cuticles again.
Jericho: When discussing women poets from the first half of the century, you mention the mentoring relationship Marianne Moore had with Elizabeth Bishop. Did you have a similar kind of mentor? You warn against readers and writers “repeating the flaws of the past” associated with an “environment” of “male privilege.” Do you see that environment as one in the past tense? How different are the present writing lives and careers for those who are not white males? Have you ever felt “locked into” or consigned to “roles of militant or minstrel”? Can you think of nonwhite poets who still seem to be locked into these roles? Can you make guesses as to why they have yet to get free?
Rita: Have I ever felt locked in? Of course. In fact, it's sad that I can so quickly respond with "Of course", isn't it? When I was coming to age as a writer, the only roles that seemed to fit a black poet in the minds of many influential intellectuals and critics were Militant or Strong Black Matron. In other words, Barbarian or Mammy. That’s harsh, I know -- but I was all too often puzzled by the way my work was received in the media. I would not consider my poems particularly "militant"; my protest, if you can call it that, has always been more of the quiet kind, with resistance emerging through revelation rather than manifesto or decree. Although my first two books contained poems with black characters, several reviewers chastised me for not being black enough, claiming that I didn’t know how to write about black people (this from a white southerner!), or that I was ashamed of being black and so didn’t write about the “condition” (from a black critic). But when Thomas and Beulah was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, I suddenly was celebrated as a “poet of the people" -- not a bad thing to be known as, just that I didn’t see what occasioned the sea change. Nowadays perceptions have certainly improved. At least most non-black audiences can accept as a given that African-Americans have interior lives, that they love and weep and get jealous and grieve and are conflicted just like all human beings; that they have complicated psyches. As for those non-white poets who still seem to be locked into the roles of yesteryear's prejudicial notions -- well, I’d hate to presume; though, frankly, generalized perceptions are still persisting in many nooks and crannies: for example, that of the Latino poet as earthy, community-loving, coming from first-generation worker stock, with just a dash of the spirit world thrown in. And Native American poets have an even denser barrier to penetrate. It’s a vicious circle: Stereotypes hinder closer reading; but closer reading of these poets is needed to dispel stereotypes.
Jericho: Your introduction mentions that, around the middle of the century, the nation began to take notice of more voices beyond New England and the states that were once the Thirteen Colonies. Still, I find that when I am invited to give a reading, I most often travel to the East Coast to do it, and I hear that some universities won’t tenure writers whose publishers don’t have offices in New York. Do you have anything to say about what our national mind thinks of as its geographic locations for poetry? In 2011, is it any easier to gain opportunities to write and have one’s writing read if working with Virginia as your home base rather than Ohio?
Rita: My first teaching position was at Arizona State University, where I taught for eight years. Whenever I flew back East for poetry readings, I felt like a tropical parrot who had landed in a blizzard. Quite literally: My clothes were always too bright -- turquoise and fuchsia; it was the Eighties, after all! -- and my mannerisms too theatrical. I would meet someone and try to shake their hand; at cocktail parties I’d have to hold back hugs and laughter. Having lived in the Southwest -- not to mention Germany and Israel -- I’m sensitive to the disconnect between our two coasts. My response is to carry my country inside me. I admit that it’s frustrating to confront the East Coast parochialism -- and it is parochial when New Yorkers assume that everyone reads the New York Times, or when East Coast venues extend invitations to poets who either live in the City or can hop a quick train in from New Haven or Princeton . . . because that might also mean their budgets are geared toward small travel expenditures, which means they cannot afford to invite many poets from the rest of the country unless he or she happens to be “in the neighborhood” -- so the poet has to go to the effort of organizing an East Coast tour that will probably pay less and rob more energy than a single reading at a Midwestern university.
More and more, though, the national perception of poetic loci is shifting; that is, the concept of real versus imagined and desired location is blurring due to the Internet; geography loses significance. When you can access poems, biographies, interviews, critiques, photographs and even, via video, "live appearances"with just a few keystrokes, a lyric poet from Anchorage becomes as immediate as the narrative wit from Philadelphia.
Jericho: Rita, I want you to talk a bit about what we mean when we use the term “poetry establishment” in your introduction. I’m finding more and more that writers and critics of an older generation who had as their goal to be a part of the establishment or writers who have never felt irredeemably shut out by the establishment pretend to have no idea what it is. You are a poet who has survived criticism from both the establishment and from those who claim to be anti-establishment. Can you tell me how you—as a widely read and decorated poet who, on several occasions through essays, through resistant voting in backrooms, through letter after letter to this or that organization or editor—navigate these waters to swim against and tolerate the current of those who believe there is only one kind of poem and only one way to read poetry? Have you ever thought of yourself as establishment or anti-establishment? As powerful or powerless?
Rita: Of course there’s an establishment -- and there are subgroups and counter-groups. Occasionally subgroups and counter-groups can even become part of the establishment, or subdue the old guard. I’d still have to say, though, that -- in very broad terms -- East Coasters continue to hold sway as the core poetry establishment in the United States; the connections and resources are centered there, with the major commercial publishing houses and Ivy League schools orbiting Boston and New York. But the consortium of creative writers and creative writing programs at universities all over the nation -- AWP -- poses an ever stronger counter-pull, with eager students buying books, reviewing, posting blogs, attending poetry readings, eventually becoming teachers and/or writers themselves. You’ve also got the wonderfully mastered poetry books published by many university and a number of other independent presses; many if not most serious contemporary poets publish or began their publishing lives in academia. I believe that the proliferation of creative writing programs not only sustains new talents and helps grow educated audiences but is instrumental in dissolving monolithic notions of poetry, as well as the power structure in the poetry world. When I was getting my MFA, there was, basically, the Iowa poem on the one hand (although geographically Midwestern, it was largely beholden to East Coast sensibilities) and the rest of poetic America, centered around Naropa, on the other hand; now there are Language poets winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards bestowed upon African-Americans. I’ve never thought of myself as establishment, though I realize that many consider me to be a fully integrated player in the establishment's power schemes, and I don’t deny that I have access to all the perks commonly associated with the establishment. But I’ve never felt particularly “establishment”, because I don't operate by pulling strings in good-old-boy/girl networks; I won’t agree to do something in exchange for future favors, and I haven’t cultivated a posse. Yet I don’t feel powerless; in fact, I feel rooted. I love teaching, and my job gives me the flexibility to structure my time so that I can write at night (I’m nocturnal). I write the poems I need and want to write, I’m ruthless when it comes to revision . . . and I love revision. To top it off, my husband is a writer and we’ve been best friends for over thirty-five years now. What more is there to success than that? Power is knowing who you are -- your strengths as well as the flaws -- and being content with what you see while still striving to improve. Powerlessness means you’ve handed that judgment over to someone else and buckled under other people's ulterior expectations.
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.”
Jericho: In spite of the fact that the Blacks Arts Movement (BAM) did happen in the United States and that every black writer at one point or another has to encounter it as a part of his or her literary tradition to accept, deny, refute, or laud, I sometimes wonder if some critics and anthologists would have us believe that the BAM never happened. Is this simply because it did not happen to them?
Rita: Amen to that.
Jericho: You are pretty forthright about the flaws of such a nationalist literary movement in your introduction, and you even include the poet Amiri Baraka (the leading figure of the BAM and no strange presence in anthologies of American poetry) and his vitriolic poem “Black Art” as an example of both his talent and the often problematic nature of BAM poetics. Can you talk about your own relationship to the Black Arts Movement? How has that relationship changed since you published “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, In a Dream” in your first book The Yellow House on the Corner (1980)? Why do you think the people who feel the need to erase the Black Arts Movement because of its anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia never think of erasing poets like Williams, Pound, and Eliot for their several beliefs in evil?
Rita: No question about it: Amiri Baraka's poem "Black Art" is highly problematic in a social sense, a rant with racist, Antisemitic and sexist elements. There's nothing in this poem I would agree with on a social level; although I understand the origins of the emotions and what propels them, I don't condone them in the least. And yet it's not only a seminal poem of the Black Arts Movement, important for understanding the shock engendered when such indiscriminate rage was thrust into the public, but it is also -- no matter what Helen Vendler decrees from her infuriated tone-deaf cosmos -- a poem that pushes language to despairing extremes and ultimately cracks it wide open. I certainly would not have included the poem were it on the low level of the hodgepodge of rutted rhymes (or shall we say: "of limited vocabulary"?) chucked into those misogynistic rap songs that nowadays make their creators rich and famous.
I was a college freshman in 1970 when the Black Arts Movement had reached its zenith. I had read many of the BAM poets and both admired and feared their bravery, the music of their work, the sheer vocal ire; this was language with legs. I felt fear because I knew that my experiences were nothing like theirs -- nor was my personality. I was a painfully shy child; when as a high school senior I was asked to list three adjectives that best described me, my choices were: “dreamy, sensitive, mild”. My poetic voice was quiet; I wanted to write about backyards and birds and a young girls’ unspoken yearning; would such topics be accepted as part of the Struggle, could they even be heard? So I wrote “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, in a Dream” as a way of situating myself aesthetically. I never thought of it as a personal criticism of Haki Madhubuti; he was standing in for an entire movement who blazed a trail I was respectfully but resolutely turning away from.
Jericho: Rita, I noticed that David Lehman’s The Oxford Book of American Poetry and your anthology do not include footnotes. Was this a decision you made? Can you discuss the reading experience you hope audiences might be afforded by not including footnotes?
Rita: The decision was made in consultation with the editors at Penguin. Footnotes might reduce the poem to a text, a specimen to be studied. I wanted the reader to meet the poem without filters, even if some filters might aid comprehension. Today we have Google, so any questions can be cleared up quickly if necessary; in most footnoted passages, I find that context provides enough clarity to get through without being pulled out of the poem.
Jericho: Sandra Cisneros has been known to say that she is a writer “in spite of the Iowa Writer's Workshop,” and in your introduction, you mention feeling a certain kind of freedom there because of being one of three minority students who were virtually ignored. Can you tell me who the other two minorities at the workshop were when you studied there? What was your relationship with them like? Are you still in contact with either of them?
Rita: Actually, Sandra Cisneros was one of the three, and Joy Harjo was the third in our little band. I'm still in touch with both of them, and they are both included in the Penguin Anthology -- not because we are friends and were classmates, but because they have made their own impact on 20th century American poetry.
Jericho: In the introduction’s epilogue, you lament Penguin’s budget not being enough to secure the rights to publish “poems by Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath (and none by Sterling Brown)…” How do you think Ginsberg would react to this if he bothered to come back from the dead?
Rita: With regard to Ginsberg's possible reaction I can only quote from my introduction to the anthology: "I wish I could have asked Allen Ginsberg myself, whom I'd met late in his life and come to know as a magnanimous man, what he thought of this; a 'New Millennium Howl' might have resulted."
The saga of permission fees is the only deeply sad experience of compiling this anthology. Although there were many heartbreaking decisions -- poems I loved for personal reasons that I had to acknowledge as sentimental, flawed, or simply their author’s one-shot wonder -- nothing shook my belief in the goodness of human beings like trying to secure the rights to reprint these three authors and by extension other poets controlled by the same publishing house. I relate the whole sordid tale in the most recent issue of AWP's "The Writer’s Chronicle" (December 2011). The negotiations broke down at the eleventh hour -- literally, the day before the anthology went to press. HarperCollins had demanded that either I agree to their fees for Plath, Ginsberg, Brown and their other -- still living – poets, or I would get none of them -- not a one. Penguin made a counteroffer, involving fewer poems by Plath and Ginsberg but meeting Harper's high per-line demands for both, and assuring them that no other poet's permissions fees were higher. HarperCollins rejected Penguin's counter offer for two reasons: a) my and Penguin's cost-conscious decision not to include as many poems as had been in my original permissions fee inquiry, and b) our refusal to pay line fees for their living poets that went well above those for other living poets in the anthology -- not only because the budget didn't stretch any further, but foremost because that would have violated agreements with other publishers who had granted Penguin reprint rights at affordable fees for their living poets, under the condition that such savings would not be used to satisfy higher demands from other houses -- it's called in the business a "favored nations" condition. The HarperCollins permissions manager, who knew that the book was going into production on February 18, abruptly and summarily withdrew all the contracts under consideration the afternoon before, February 17, and disappeared on vacation the next day. As if he tried to torpedo the entire project, for whatever reason . . . makes one suspicious, doesn't it?
I also had to drop a few other poets and a number of poems represented by different publishers because their fees were outrageous and remained high despite my entreaties. For example, there was one famous dead poet at the Plath/Ginsberg fee level whose original contribution of several longish poems I had to, by financial necessity, edit down to one poem. Those publishers' intransigence showed a cavalier disregard for their authors' best interests, since apparently they didn't care if their poets were included in a high profile anthology as much as they cared about making a few bucks -- though in the end they didn't make a penny because I dropped those poems. I won't name names; suffice it to say that my original manuscript was longer and contained more poets than the final publication, and the one and only reason for shortening it lay in unacceptable permissions fees. The sad thing about most of these cases, with the exception, of course, of Plath and Ginsberg, is that no-one misses those exclusions but me -- and perhaps a handful of die-hard fans of this or that poet who are now out there hollering in cyberspace. All I can say is: I would have loved to give Helen Vendler an even higher number than 175 to grouse about.
Jericho: What’s next in this writing life for Rita Dove? What did you learn about your own sensibilities while editing this anthology, and how might these lessons inform what you will do as a poet now or in the future?
Rita: Ah, what’s next? Who knows? As I indicated earlier, I don’t plan my poetry books; I write from poem to poem until the fulcrum tips, and the accrued texts tell me where to go. So I’m writing poems -- lyrics, as well as strange internal monologues -- and I have no idea where they’ll lead me. But that’s what keeps me coming back for more.
More about Rita Dove
Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including, The American Poetry Review, The Believer, jubilat, Oxford American, Ploughshares, A Public Space, and 100 Best African American Poems. His first book, PLEASE (New Issues), won the American Book Award.