In 2001, I was heading to graduate school to pursue a Master’s degree in creative writing. My Aunt Linda had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was moving home to live with her mother. We seemed to pass each other like ships in the night, or more precisely, like ferry boats in the Fauntleroy harbor.
I wanted to give my aunt a gift that she would always remember. I tried to imagine what that gift might be. Aunt Linda, though shy about her artistic endeavors, had always loved painting and writing poems. The den at my grandmother’s house was filled with her art books and brochures from museums she had visited in Europe. There were no poetry books that I could recall.
On one of my last nights in Seattle, I browsed the shelves at Twice Sold Tales, my favorite used bookstore on Capitol Hill. There I found two copies of The Best American Poetry 2000. I did not know the series then. I sat on a stool and began reading the first poem in the anthology— Kim Addonizio’s “Virgin Spring”—which described in heartbreaking detail a film I had never seen. The final lines will always haunt me:
I don’t know what to make of the sister. She’s the one who knows the
world is brutal
and goes on, scattering seed for the hogs, the one who says nothing,
the one who survives.
I bought both copies of the anthology that night. One I kept for myself, and the other I gave to Aunt Linda, suggesting we read and discuss one poem each month by phone and email as a way of keeping in touch.
There are seventy-five poems in each issue of Best American Poetry. My aunt and I made it to forty before she died.
Guest editor Denise Duhamel writes in her introduction to The Best American Poetry 2013, “Walt Whitman knew that in order to have great poets we need to have great audiences. The readership of The Best American Poetry series is that audience” (xxviii). While “great,” like “best,” is an inherently subjective term, I like to think of my Aunt Linda and me as two distinctive facets of that audience. As a student, writer, and future teacher of poetry, The Best American Poetry series would soon become a staple of my education and an essential handbook for my literary career. (I know I am not alone here.) For Linda, the anthology was something else altogether—an introduction to a world of contemporary poets she hadn’t even realized was there.