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

Wayne Miller & Kevin Prufer
On Editing New European Poets

Wayne Miller:

New European Poets began through an off-hand conversation in the Pleiades office. Discussing a few translated poems for the magazine, Kevin and I agreed that neither of us had any clear idea of what was going on in European poetry today.

Most American poetry readers know about early to mid-20th century European poetry, when so many poets found themselves caught in a chain of historical cataclysms (the World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, Stalinism, the Cold War, etc.). But after these—very little. Only a few poets born during or after World War II have gained a significant readership in the U.S. (Heaney, Zagajewski, Brodsky, and Šalamun among them). For the most part the collective weight of that previous generation (or so)—which includes poets like Miłosz, Szymborska, Celan, Ponge, Tranströmer, Akhmatova, Montale, and García Lorca—has continued to draw our focus.

It appeared, quite simply, that the best way to find out what happened in the aftermath would be to make a book—since, as far as we could tell, such a book didn’t exist.

My sense is that anthologies fall roughly into three categories: (1) those that bring unknown or previously inaccessible work to an audience, (2) those that aspire to organize or canonize work that is already available, or (3) those that attempt to define a particular literary style or approach (such as a prose-poem anthology or an anthology of avant-garde fiction). These categories aren’t entirely discrete. Surely lots of canon-making anthologies make the case for including unknown writers among their better-known peers, and style-defining anthologies can’t help but begin to construct a canon within a given style. And, as was the case with New European Poets, introducing poets American readers mostly didn’t know would necessarily elevate particular poets from within their national literatures.

We knew at the outset it would be impossible to represent in any even semi-definitive way all of Europe—with its nearly 750 million inhabitants—so we’d have to cut against the sense that we were engaged in canon building. Plus, the impulse of the book was primarily exploratory, which meant we were situated squarely in the first of the above categories.

It was also immediately clear that we couldn’t undertake such a book alone. Neither of us had the knowledge, language skills, or access to unearth important contemporary poets from nearly 50 countries and languages. So, we began making a list of dependable translators, editors, and poets who had particular access to European national literatures—through Fulbrights and other experiences abroad, as well as through translating—and at the 2005 AWP in Vancouver we began approaching them. After several months of expanding our group, we’d put together our team of “regional editors” who would spend the following year collecting work from the countries of Europe, and who were committed in their scouting to the idea of representing a variety of aesthetics. Of course, all these editors would necessarily make discernments, but we asked them to commit from the beginning to the ethos of representing rather than elevating particular aesthetic lines. Beyond that, we left it up to them to determine how best to represent their regions, since they would know better than us.

From there, we faced a variety of challenges, most of which were theoretical or conceptual in nature. The first of these happened when Graywolf accepted the book proposal (about which we were thrilled!). One condition they imposed upon us was that the book couldn’t be more than 350 pages. On the one hand, that obviously limited what we could include. On the other hand, Graywolf’s reasoning seemed sound; they wanted the book to be an accessible, affordable, carry-able book for a common poetry reader, not a 1000-page tome relegated primarily to the stacks of university libraries.

But how would we apportion our suddenly limited number of pages? Already there’d been some cogent debate among our twenty-two regional editors over whether we should be organizing the book according to nationality or language. Language seemed to make a lot of sense, since, say, German and Swiss-German poets were sometimes in conversation with each other. But we feared that a book organized by language might be difficult to navigate for an American reader not well versed in the complexities of European minority or regional language groups. (For example, would an average American reader know that the Romagnolo section or the Galician section included poets from the respective nations of Italy or Spain?)

In the interest of accessibility we went with organizing by nation, though we were well aware that this was an imperfect solution. As for apportioning pages, we decided to do so roughly according to national population. If this were a canon-constructing anthology, we would have known ahead of time which poets and national literatures we considered the most robust. But given that the anthology’s methods were mostly exploratory, we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss exciting work from nations and languages of diminished cultural hegemony. Thus, apportioning pages according to population, while deeply imperfect, would make sure that we gave often-overlooked countries (like Belarus and Albania) fair seats at the table.

Interestingly, when the book came out, both of these decisions drew criticism from poets included in the anthology. A Danish poet we met at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) Conference didn’t like that we’d organized according to nation, since he saw that choice as a throwback to an outdated view of Europe. I can’t say we entirely disagreed with him, though the alternative would have been differently problematic. And while we were sometimes criticized for the arbitrariness of divvying pages according to population, we also found ourselves drawing praise from the very countries we’d been concerned about overlooking. In that regard, I think our decision on page apportionment was arbitrary but effectively inclusive.

A third question we faced was how and where to draw our cutoff year for inclusion. We wanted to emphasize European poets born after World War II, but we wanted to allow room for older poets who came to prominence later in life. And while different countries have their unique historical watershed moments (say, the May 1968 riots in France), there wasn’t a clear trans-European cutoff for us to latch onto. Finally we decided that included poets needed to have published their first books after 1970. This gave us 35 years to work with (1970-2005), and the emphasis on book publication gave us the flexibility to include poets who began publishing in middle or even old age.

We also had to address at the outset whether or not to include poets from the United Kingdom and Ireland, which often show up in the U.S. in UK/Irish or English-language anthologies. Our sense was that, while America obviously shares a language with these countries, our national poetries had grown further apart since the midcentury. We were also editing the book during the last years of the Bush administration, and at that moment it seemed that those countries had shifted politically somewhat closer to the European continent. Thus, our decision to include them—despite the recent publication of Don Paterson and Charles Simic’s New British Poetry anthology in 2004—was in response to our joined perception of poetics and politics.

It was exciting when, in July of 2006, the first poems started coming in from our regional editors. For a year we’d had a team of editors and a concept for a book, but virtually no actual poems. As I recall, Roger Greenwald was the first regional editor to send in work, and when Kevin and I read his selections from Denmark, Norway, and Sápmi (the transnational region inhabited by the Sami People), we were ecstatic. The poems were terrific and had some real aesthetic range—it suddenly seemed like the book would come together.

There were, of course, many smaller-scale logistical problems. For example, we never did manage to find a regional editor for Iceland. The country is so small (population 300,000—about 1/8 the size of the Kansas City metropolitan area), and the poetry community so tightknit, that no one we contacted wanted to be responsible for choosing some poets over others. In the end, Kevin and I gathered every Icelandic poem and poetry book we could find translated into English and simply picked what for us were the most compelling poems. We used a similar technique with Malta. In both cases, we were lucky to discover the publishing house Southword Editions, out of Cork, Ireland, which has an extraordinary (though, unfortunately, not well known) translation series.

Once all the poems were in, our final task was to figure out how best to organize the material. Within national sections, chronologically by birth dates seemed easy and clear. It also occurred to us that, though we’d chosen to forsake language as a primary organizing principle, we could use language to organize the sections of the book—grouping the nations that speak Romance, Slavic, and Germanic languages, and inserting other languages (e.g., the Uralic languages and Albanian) where they have geographic and cultural connections. What resulted feels like something of a tour of Europe, beginning in Portugal and ending in the Republic of Ireland. That’s something about the book I still particularly like.

When we started New European Poets our goal was to make a foray into what was happening in contemporary European poetry, and to bring interested readers along on our expedition. We hoped that this might spark some further conversation about the aesthetic isolation of American poetry and the vibrancy of current European poetry. In these regards, we were, perhaps, limitedly successful. Several of our regional editors have placed books by poets included in the anthology, and the book sold reasonably well, thus finding about as large an audience as we could have hoped for.

Of course, we could never have made New European Poets without our regional editors, who really did the most important work of the book. Along the way, our respect for the essential and too-often ignored work of translators deepened significantly, and we managed to put together a book that I continue to pick up to read. Since I didn’t write or translate the poems in it, nor did I choose the bulk of them, it feels like a book in which I still keep discovering new things, and that makes it particularly rewarding for me.

Kevin Prufer:

All of what Wayne says above is true—and, yes, more than anything, I, too, gained enormous respect for the complexity of poetry translation and the work of translators. (Inspired by our experience with New European Poets, I’m now at work co-editing a book on multiple translations—that is, a book that examines, side by side, several different renderings into English of the same poems. It brings into even clearer light some of the issues of translation and culture that Wayne addresses above.)

One thing Wayne didn’t mention—perhaps he’s repressed it!—is what I recall as the most arduous task of editing New European Poets: Rights acquisition. For each poem in the book—and there are something like 350 poems—we needed to acquire permission from (and render payment unto) an array of people involved in production and distribution. These included: the poet, the translator, the publisher who first published the poem in its original language, and, if the poem’s translation wasn’t commissioned for our book, the English language publisher of the translation. Often, the poets (or translators) were deceased, so we had to find relatives. Presses had frequently gone out of business. Sometimes, the poets themselves spoke no English and had difficulties understanding our contracts. Along the way, poets argued about the quality of translations or they made themselves impossible to find. Some presses—primarily in England—demanded enormous sums of money that we could not pay, though they were willing to bargain with us in tiresome, drawn-out ways. Although it wasn’t hard tracking down rightsholders in Germany or Ireland, it was often nearly impossible in Bosnia, Turkey, Slovenia, Belarus, Serbia. And to make matters even more difficult, each country seemed to have a different set of rules when it came to rights acquisition, so we were often sent from one rightsholder to another, only to learn that neither really had authority to grant permission.

In several cases, rights acquisition was not possible. There are, I’m afraid, several poems in the book that were reprinted without permission. After we documented four or five attempts with each rightsholder, Graywolf agreed to publish all the poems we selected and offer payment after publication, as claims arose.

Wayne has also written in some detail about our aspirations for New European Poets here at home. One of the more surprising things about the book’s reception, however, has been the way it’s been discussed abroad. We quickly learned that New European Poets was being passed around among readers in Europe, where no similar anthology is in print. European newspapers reviewed it and European readers have been using the book to get a sense of the variety of poets, poems, sensibilities that are being produced on their continent. German, Romanian, and Italian readers have told me that it was frustrating that no such book existed in their languages, but that having it in English was the next best thing. And we’ve heard that an edition of the book is in preparation for publication in Brazil.

Wayne and I have done a lot of editing together—and have ongoing co-edited projects today. The most important thing I’ve learned—and I think Wayne would agree—is that editing a poetry book or journal is very different from putting together the ultimate mix-tape. That is, to approach a project like this with the idea that we’re going to select a bunch of kick-ass poems that everyone will love is naïve—and maybe a little narcissistic. Of course, any choices an editor makes involve an assertion of sensibility. That is unavoidable. But in an anthology that attempts to represent the work of a nation or continent or people, the editor’s role is complex. It involves both an assertion of value and a measure of self-effacement. The anthologist’s question isn’t always necessarily “What do I like here?”—but “What’s happening here and why?” And answering that second question can be fascinating, productive, mind-expanding, and humanizing.