Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Poets & Anthologies

Wellington writer Maggie Rainey-Smith reports from the Festival

The name anthology evidently derives from the Greek word for bouquet.   A bouquet of poems.    Sounds perfect, don’t you think?   Well, this is what we discovered at the Poets and Anthologies session yesterday, chaired by Bill Manhire, with poets, Harry Ricketts, Fiona Farrell (right) and Michael Hulse.    I think it was Fiona who said but of course, you didn’t want a bouquet of just red roses.  Indeed.
               The weekday audiences are somewhat smaller than the weekend, which is a shame, because the level of discussion and quality of literary debate is equally good.    This session was loosely around poetry anthologies (bunches of flowers), and how they are selected, their themes and what goes into choosing poems for an anthology.   I bet, like me, there were poets all over the theatre, waiting to hear how this happens!   Well, to make us feel a whole lot better about this, the panel was asked to read two of their own poems, one that had been anthologised (sometimes more than once) and another poem that was one of their favourites, one they really cared about, that had been ‘overlooked’.    Imagine that, when you think of the line-up on stage – now that was a grand teaser to keep us hooked in to the conversation.
               Harry Ricketts (left) came on stage and scattered an array of anthologies at his feet.   When this was mentioned by Bill, Harry explained that he wasn’t good at remembering titles and the books were there to remind him.   But too, they looked like a gathering of his close friends, the way you are sometimes might bring your whanau to an interview.
               Michael Hulse (above right) talked about his particular passion for R A K Mason, and spoke of stunning a group of American poets on reading a poem of Mason’s when they had never heard of him.  He also mentioned that he admires Vincent O’Sullivan’s poetry.   The thrust of his comments were around the prohibitive cost of putting comprehensive anthologies together.   He told us how it was they found Felix Dennis, a poet and a wealthy patron with very deep pockets to fund ‘The Twentieth Century in Poetry’ which Michael had co-edited and which I fondled in the foyer earlier on ($60.00 but very tempting).
               I enjoyed listening to Harry talk about putting an anthology together being something akin to picking teams.  He confided that working with Paula Green on “99 ways into NZ Poetry”, they did trade-offs – and I wondered, would that be a consolation to an over-looked poet (see, ha, they had to trade-off, it wasn’t fair), or would it be an outrage (how dare they trade me off).       But all of us who write know that of course there are presses and publishers where your work will fit and places that you know your work won’t fit.   Of course there is bias and favouritism, nepotism and this is inevitable, surely, even without intent?   But I’m happy to be corrected on this and I mean it in the broadest sense as happens in any field of work or play.
               Themes were discussed, such as love poems and a light-hearted suggestion made there could be an anthology of cricket poems (which got the thumbs up from both Michael and Harry).   Bill Manhire suggested that the Christchurch earthquake perhaps lent itself to an anthology of poems.   Fiona Farrell was quick to say she felt it was too soon and that time was needed for poems like this to settle, to compost before an anthology was made.   She also commented that she rarely talks about reading an anthology and frequently hears herself saying ‘I used that anthology’.   Which was an interesting observation.
               Talk moved to the idea of comical versus satirical and I think it was Harry who said that if you invite poets to submit a comical poem they are unimpressed, but if you ask for satire, they are much happier.   This led to the whole idea of what is light verse?   Does light equate to insubstantial, or slight.  Fiona felt light verse, implied rhyme.   And then read a poem of hers that has been anthologised which was in fact a song she wrote about a young woman settler leaving England – and it rhymed.    Fiona later stunned us all with the reading of her second poem.   She comes from a background in theatre direction (something I did not know), but it surely told when she read this poem.   Fiona began with the most potent silence, that for quite some time, you wondered if she was overcome with emotion, had forgotten the poem, or... but then she read the poem in the most astonishing voice (a loud whisper) and  the poem was rendered all the more powerful (political in its content).
               Both Harry and Michael read poems they had written about their daughters – how nice was that!     In the end, time ran out, and I think with panels, sometimes the session could be just a wee bit longer.   We missed out on hearing Bill Manhire (left) read his much-loved but overlooked poem – now what a treat that would have been – and I’m sure we were all hanging out for that!     We don’t imagine that the more well-known and well-published poets, also have poems that don’t quite make it.
               I can’t recall who said this, but I wrote down this gem from the conversation “I’ve committed anthology making” which sort of nicely rounds this off.   Someone also suggested that Writers and Readers was a bouquet (anthology) and indeed, I think we would all be happy to hear more sometime about this committing of anthology making.

Maggie Rainey-Smith


maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

I forgot to mention that Bill Manhire raised the issue of the internet having an impact on anthologies and this was an area that I think would have been really interesting to explore more - but there just wasn't time.

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

I must apologise to Harry Ricketts - it seems I have 'mis-remembered' what he said (that is a polite way of saying, I got it wrong). In regard to the selection of poems for '99 Ways into NZ Poetry' Harry was evidently talking about trade-offs when he spoke about a different anthology that he edited with Paul Morris, and Mike Grimshaw, 'Spirit in a Strange Land' - and it was about this anthology he mentioned that there was some horsetrading as there inevitably will be with three editors doing an anthology. For the record: Harry and Paula did no horsetrading of any kind about any aspect of 99 Ways. "We did very extensively talk over the 25 or so poets we invited to submit a commentary about one of their poems." Sincere apologies to Harry and Paula.