In twenty-five years of working on The Best American Poetry, I had lost only two of the guest editors with whom I worked closely for "their" year -- A. R. Ammons (ed. BAP 1994) and Robert Creeley (BAP 2002) -- until three days ago, the day of the death of Adrienne Rich, who edited The Best American Poetry 1996.
Adrienne's poems had been picked by Jorie Graham and Charles Simic respectively for the 1990 and 1992 books in the series, and when Adrienne and I corresponded on the latter occasion it turned out that she admired the anthology and its aims and had very definite opinions on how to make it even better and more inclusive. I decided to ask her to serve as the guest-editor of a volume and courted her to this end for more than a year before she accepted. I met with her in New York in September 1993 and we sealed the deal with a handshake.
In The Best American Poetry 1996, Adrienne broke with precedent in more ways than one. She was the first editor to include more than one poem by a given poet. Her edition incudes four poems by high school students and four poems by men and women incarcerated in prison. Reading for the anthology she said, "I always felt I was panning for gold."
Among the poems she wanted to include were several by authors that, in spite of our assiduousness, we (Maggie Nelson and I) failed to track down in that winter of 1995-96 when e-mail was still a novelty. Adrienne named the authors in her introduction to the volume, and eventually we heard from them. "A poem often becomes a kind of commodty in the competitive world of curriculum vitae, though I deplore the fact," she wrote to a disappointed poet. "I would be very sorry if either this mischance, or your numerous recognitions, were to get between you and the life of poetry, which is an art, not a competititon, an art demanding self-discipline and apprenticeship, often through very unencouraging circumstances, for stakes which have nothing to do with the market. I hope you will consider this, unfashionable idea though it is."
It was wonderful to work with Adrienne. She committed herself with fierce passion and uncompromising integrity to the editing of The Best American Poetry 1996. Her own poems appeared nine times in The Best American Poetry, in each case to the enhancement of the volume. In lamenting her death I join all the many others whose lives were touched by this important and beloved figure. -- DL
See the tribute to Adrienne in The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/article/167113/five-poems-adrienne-rich