Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

Cole Swensen
re American Hybrid edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John
Norton, 2009

The anthology American Hybrid was guided by a single question—how has the breakdown of the experimental/conventional binary that had functioned as the conceptual construct of American poetry since the mid-20th century affected the work being written by poets at the end of that century and the beginning of the new one? We were interested in doing the anthology because we saw what we feel is a new ruling paradigm: the previous experimental-to-conventional continuum has been replaced by a field of practices that fit into neither of those earlier categories, practices that are themselves connected by a rhizomatic network of constantly shifting relationships. Far from a “falling into the middle” between these two earlier terms, we saw an explosion of the linear model into a three-dimensional field that is much harder to map and track.

I want to stress that we didn’t see this as the new paradigm, but as a new paradigm, which is why we chose the subtitle “a Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry.” But though we think it’s only one among a number of emergent paradigms, we do think it’s the strongest one that has risen out of that earlier binary. I don’t think that American poets and others interested in the field realize how deeply that binary construction has been internalized, but it has—to the extent that it’s still the ruling notion at least fifteen years after its own accuracy has dramatically waned. The continued adherence to this outdated paradigm and its outdated nomenclature poses a real limitation on what we can see in and what we can say about contemporary American poetry.

This work—work that exploded this binary in ways that yet clearly inherited from it—seemed to us to be ubiquitous, yet, as editors, we still had to concisely define this body of work and the rhizomatic field that it composed. Arriving at such definitions—and thus defining the field—seems to be one of the functions that an anthology performs, and yet arriving at a definition that recognizes and makes visible an existing paradigm rather than creating one through the act of definition itself can be a delicate matter. We spent much time, after our initial discussions, going back through many, many writers and many, many books, asking ourselves and each other what had given rise to our mutual impression of this emergence of hybrid diversity.

These discussions led to a focus on work that is hybrid in the sense that it inherits from different traditions, but recombines selected aspects of them in ways that make that work no longer belong to any of those traditions themselves. This is not work that synthesizes different approaches; it’s not work that unifies disparate tendencies, but instead, it’s work that reconfigures precedents to create new constructs. We were particularly interested in the work of certain writers who had previously been strongly associated with an earlier category because we saw in them a continued commitment to break through definitional boundaries. Innovative in their earlier works, they have not stayed with those early innovations, but have continued to contribute to the innovation of poetic form as a whole by evolving their work into new terms.

In compiling American Hybrid, we were not suggesting that divisions and categories no longer exist—far from it; there are currently more than ever, which is the best evidence available of the breakdown of the experimental-conservative binary. Furthermore, today’s divisions are different in that they cannot be accurately mapped in any way that reveals a stable developmental relationship or relationships of degree among them—i.e. it can’t be said that X’s work is         er than Y’s—no matter what comparative might go in that blank. In a sense, to propose an appreciation of contemporary work not based on comparisons or relative evaluations was our goal, and it’s a problematic one in that an anthology inherently “brings things together,” which to many readers implies some basis of commonality, yet what we were proposing was precisely a collectivity that has nothing in common except its radical differences—differences from each other and from previous modes and paradigms. And I think that this is an accurate description—and no less so today, five years later, than it was in 2009; it’s a point that I think worth emphasizing because I think the tendency of works to fall away from any center—to become increasingly literally eccentric—continues to be the most fruitful principle active in contemporary American work.

Perhaps one of the things an anthology can accomplish is to offer a snapshot of a given moment, freezing an ever-changing system for a just second in order to view its extent and its configuration. Such a frozen moment is always instantly historical, but it’s also useful for determining the prevailing questions driving any given moment—and there are always widely differing opinions as to what those questions are. The question that interested us is above all a formal one; it seems to me that formal issues reveal shifts of thinking, as well as prevailing values, more subtly but also more complexly and more accurately than most other issues.

One of the most crucial steps in any anthology project is, I think, identifying the leading question, and all the rest of an editor’s work is determined by that. And so for us, because the basic question was the entire impetus for the project, much of the rest was immediately laid out. And it was all a tremendous pleasure, particularly the opportunity to read and reread so much work of the past thirty or even forty years. It became a complete immersion in the choices and pursuits of a certain lineage of American poetry and slowly revealed an aesthetic history that has strong ethical and political overtones.

It was also a great pleasure to make the difficult choices about the anthology’s shape. And certain choices that we made incited what I found to be a surprising amount of feedback—particularly our decisions to order the anthology alphabetically and to give all the poets presented the same number of pages. Some people clearly felt that both choices amounted to abdicating the responsibilities of an editor, but we felt very strongly otherwise. I think an editor has to strike a balance between making choices for readers and giving readers the necessary materials to make their own; we tried to veer toward the latter whenever possible. With our project—and I’m sure it’s absolutely the same with every anthology project ever conceived—the selection of writers and works was extremely difficult. Given the extent of this tendency among contemporary writers, we knew immediately that we would never have the amount of space that the project really required—and at that very early point, we seriously considered dropping the project altogether, feeling that if it couldn’t be done fully and completely, it might be better not done at all, but we finally decided to continue with it for two reasons: one, we simply wanted to articulate the idea, to present it for discussion, as it were, to put it into circulation, and the other was that we thought it important to make work available in a major and well-distributed anthology that might not otherwise get circulated in the broad range of environments in which major anthologies circulate, given that major anthologies still tend (though with notable exceptions) to conform to the binary distinction that we felt it was so important to oppose. And the major reason that it was important to oppose it with a highly visible anthology is because that binary model is extremely exclusionary—it simply writes out all the work that occupies the extensive fields that head off in every direction from its continuum and extremes.

But once we had imposed our views through our selection of the writers and the specific works, we felt that the reader should have the opportunity to make the significant decisions that follow from there, such as how, if at all, these writers might be related to each other and what their relative importance might be. As an anthology premised upon differences, any ordering principle other than the most arbitrary would have worked directly against our foundational concept—proffered notions of common projects or shared aesthetics were exactly what we wanted to discourage; if a reader sees connections between two or more poets, that’s fine, but we want the reader to find those links, which might be very different links from the ones that we, or another reader, might see. Even a regional, even a chronological, ordering implies connections or sequential development that we did not want to impose.

We also felt very strongly that all the writers in the anthology are excellent—beyond excellent—and that any sense that one writer merited more pages than another would have contradicted our premises. You asked about the pitfalls and difficulties we encountered—running up against presumptions on these and other aspects of how an anthology “should” be configured was definitely one of them, but it was one that reconfirmed our initial decisions and the convictions they were based on rather than caused us to doubt them.

Did we achieve what we hoped to accomplish? No. What we wanted to accomplish was the articulation and illumination of a development in American poetry—and that can’t be done in 500 pages, and above all, it can’t be done in a single volume because a single volume is a synchronic slice. I’d like a project-structure that let us revisit this question every seven years. It may not continue to be a significant direction in American poetry forever, but I do believe that it will be for at least the next two or three decades, and to “take a snapshot” of its current state every seven years would, I think, accomplish something.