Poet Daniel Lawless On How To Edit An Anthology of Poetry

Daniel Lawless, Poet and Editor of Plume Magazine, Talks About Editing The Plume Anthology of Poetry 2013

Danny Lawless Plume MagazineMary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Danny. In just a few years, Plume has become one of the most respected and influential on-line poetry journals. You recently edited The Plume Anthology of Poetry 2013, a beautifully conceived and executed treasure-trove of poems by 130 poets including Diane Wakoski, Sharon Olds, Alan Shapiro, Lyn Lifshin, Norman Dubie, Billy Collins, Andrei Codrescu, and Gaius Valerius Catullus. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that three of my poems also appear in this anthology, which is a real honor. I’ve never been in an anthology with Catullus before.

I’d like to talk to you about how you go about editing an anthology and what criteria you use for selecting the poems. Could you please start by telling us how The Plume Anthology 2013 differs from the other poetry anthologies we see coming out almost weekly?

Danny:  Assuming the quality of the poems to be roughly equivalent, it really only differs in one substantial way. Unlike many anthologies, The Plume Anthology 2013 is un-themed.  This probably is both good and bad. Good, in that the quality of work is the sole criterion for inclusion, opening the doors for eclecticism that much wider. Bad, for approximately the same reason: a theme can be a useful guide, a kind of  governor, or a funnel,  making the editing process that much more streamlined — and perhaps for a certain reader, richer.   

Mary:  Did you ask for submissions or was this anthology by invitation only?

Danny: With the first anthology (The Plume Anthology of Poetry 2012), submissions were culled from the previous months’ work. We had so little time – or experience, or the slightest notion that this first Plume would actually work, so by necessity we published essentially what we already had run online, with, oh, perhaps 15% new work. There was a fine Featured Selection with Dutch poet M. Vasalis, translated byDavid Young and Fred Lessing, and a splendid and gracious forward from Ron Slate. I was surprised anyone bought it – but they did.

Mary: I’m not surprised. Plume 2012 was an amazing anthology filled with great poetry. How did you go about choosing the poets for the 2013 Plume?

Plume Anthology of Poetry 2013Danny: For the 2013 and the upcoming 2014 anthologies, I chose poets whose work I like a lot and asked them to submit a small batch of work, from which I would select two poems – one for online, one for the print anthology. This comprised most of the current anthology and will be the case in the 2014 anthology.  The remainder of the poems came from and will come from unsolicited submissions via the Submishmash system.

Mary: What criteria did you use to select the poems?

 Danny: I was afraid you would ask this, Mary. Plume is pretty much a one-man show. Our “staff” as noted on the site is largely uninvolved in the editing process — albeit indispensable in interviews, layout, distribution, PR, and such.  Which is to say that I alone select the poems both for the web and print venues. Plume grew out of my own reading over – god, forty-five years. My tastes have gradually revealed themselves, I suppose, and they alone are the criteria for selecting poems to appear in Plume

I fell hard for the Surrealists in my teens, and I have remained something of a Francophile ever since. The magazine reflects that enamorment, I’m sure.  I read a lot of work in translation in those days: Bly, Michael Benedikt, Richard Howard, Marilyn Hacker. And the poetry in translation had a certain “flat” quality I assumed was reflective of the actual work, which I was and remain drawn to, and which I discovered, when I learned to read French, was not at all the case: I was vastly disappointed in the originals!

Soon enough though, I started reading Barthes and Derrida and Foucault and the sublime and hilarious Cioran – my favorite writer, to this day.  Later came the South Americans – Parra was a revelation — and finally the British (Larkin!) and Americans, via the Beats at first.  So, you see, a circuitous route – a reading by feel, intuition, allusion.

Dennis Nukse and I have talked a little about this – the paths we took in our reading are similar, and I think a number of people in the vicinity of our ages (he’s younger than I,  no doubt)  followed approximately the same route, somehow.  Not the way an MFA candidate would have approached reading (I don’t have an MFA), I don’t think–not the way it’s done today, anyway.  

So Plume is a way of relocating or maintaining that path, while opening up new branches of it. The Prévert line as a motto which appears on the Plume Magazine website–“for those who loved it, the garden remains open” –is a direct allusion to that.  And so is the logo – the skeletal bird and the new feather. 

Mary: You’ve even left the Prévert quote in French on the Plume website: “ Le jardin reste ouvert à ceux qui l’ont aimé .”

Danny:  Yes, but to answer your question about the criteria for selection more directly: Our mission statement says something about this: “the fineness of language, the huge absences to which it points and partakes of, and the urgency and permanence of its state of departure – the coattails forever—just now – disappearing around the corner.” Not sure if that makes sense, but I know it when I see it, as they say. The image counts for a great deal with me, the sense of the uncanny, the just-so word choice; less so the narrative. (Although as soon as I say this, I think of ten narrative poems I adore.)  

Mary: What qualities in a poem immediately attract you? What qualities immediately put you off?

Danny: As I said, I am drawn to the arresting image first – thanks to the Surrealists, surely. I am impatient with poems that dawdle: the poet willing to spend ten even twenty lines to get to that image, that lineTweet to that he or she hopes, I think, will be worth the candle. That “flatness,” too, is a quality I still find attractive: the mater-of-factness of a Ponge or Michaux, even Russell Edson — appeals. But also the leaps—to use a Bly-ian term – of a Follain. If I can find that in a modern poem, I am very happy.

 How can one say it? Overly, or self-consciously “poetic” language is off-putting. Definitely, I could bear not reading another poem about childhood violence or politics. Not much interested in gardening or the names of flora or fauna or poems-about-poems. And there is something to be said for the short poem – Simic is a master, for example. I love the aphorists: Cioran, as noted, but also James Richardson of late. I am drawn to the eastern Europeans these days, too. And the work of East Asians poets — astounding. Plume has run translations in every issue since its inception, often more than one, and I feel sure this will continue.

Mary:  Is editing an anthology of poetry different from editing a poetry magazine?

Danny: No, not really.  The process of selection is the same: my tastes. True, editing an issue is a more intimate experience: one of the blurbs for the 2013 anthology remarked on the surprising “neighborhoods” of poems in the online venue.  I loved that – analogous to the image, the “rubbing up against” each other of words that make a remarkable image in a poem, writ large in an issue of twelve poems, where the poems themselves rub against one another, chafe, spark…each informing the others, expanding their meanings and contexts, deepening the reading experience: getting to know one another, as neighbors might.

The online issues represent, I hope, a clearly curatorial intent – to use the current buzzword. In the anthology, one is dealing with so many poems, that intimacy can be lost in, or mitigated by, the relative distance of one poem from its natural companions: the difference between seeing a show in some dive or boîte and in an arena, perhaps. The scale of the anthology seems to work against this. Even though  the order of poems in both the online issues and the anthology is alphabetical, the twelve poems in the issues still can seem of a piece, I think – not quite so in the 70+ poems in the anthologies.

Mary: Many anthologies are collections of a particular school of poetry—Language Poetry, for example. Why did you decide to include such a wide range of poetic forms?  How did you make sure this happened?

Mary: Here, I’ll quote another blurb, forgive me, from Jeff Skinner: “…Plume establishes its place on the literary scene somewhere above fashion, apart from all questions of Hipster vs. . . . Whatever.” If I could have chosen any description of what I was after, this is it. I wanted Plume to be outside the “aesthetic axe-grinding” as someone else notes, removed from the narrow confines of that little street, and allow the poetry to speak for itself.  The best poetry rarely represents an idea, a stance, a school, and god forbid wants to teach its readers.  

So the poems in the issues of the magazine and the poems in the anthology are those I like: quite simple. I made sure it happened by both carefully scouring the unsolicited submissions and asking for work from a wide range of poets whose poems I have admired, and since my own my tastes are eclectic, this has resulted in what you see in Plume.  Not to forget: as these tastes evolve, that, too, will be reflected in the journal. 

For instance, African-American poetry has been under-represented in Plume, I know, and I am making a conscious effort to address that, reaching out to various poets and organizations, with some success.  Martha Collins has a thousand and one contacts with African-American poets, which has been a help, too.  The work has been an eye-opener – long overdue. You’ll see more from poets of color in future issues, I’m certain.  Fortunately, I don’t need to make money from Plume – not that I ever expected to, and this allows me the great freedom of publishing only those poems I love. Had I to consider selling the thing, I’m sure it would be very different, and that I wouldn’t like it all.

Mary: Why did you decide to arrange the poems alphabetically by the authors’ last names?

Danny: Good question. I’m not sure how or why this happened.  The easy answer is that, with their work presented alphabetically by last name, poets won’t feel part of some established hierarchy, however unintended that might be. And I think they would feel that: — we poets are generally a sensitive lot, aren’t we? Also, there’s the ease of locating a particular poet – the finger slides to him or her almost without thought. 

But I am wondering, now, if that is sufficient reason to forgo the pleasures of creating those “neighborhoods” alluded to above – sacrificing the way poems “call to one another” as Vila-Matas observes.  Perhaps the next anthology will be more like the online issues, but a kind of city, the breadth of which the reader might stroll as she will, one day here and the next there, never quite sure when she has crossed some invisible boundary or other but discovering for herself – and identifying for herself – just where she is.

Mary:  I love that image of strolling through a City of Poetry. Could you tell us what in general are the best and worst things about being an editor of an anthology?

Danny: Like many things, the best is beheld in the rear-view.  It’s a joy, believe me –oh,  you know this, Mary–to hold in one’s hands the completed project, the physical object that had for so long remained merely a possibility, a notion, a progression of tasks. I like very much the correspondence with poets, too. I think I have become friends, if I can use that term for people I have never met except on the page or the screen, with some – people of like mind, which I don’t often get to do in life lived in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

I have had very, very few unpleasant experiences with contributors: in fact, none come to mind. Universally a kind and generous bunch, especially given the smallness of Plume, its newness, its many much more established and worthy relatives. Honestly, I am not sure at all why these poets do send their work to us. Better not to inquire, though: as Simic writes somewhere: “don’t wake the damn cards.”

The worst is everything else.  Printing, PR, contacts, agents, permission letters, all a pain in the ass. Again, I’m thankful for the Plume “staff.”

Mary: Are there any tips you can give someone who is planning to edit an anthology?

Danny: Don’t do it! No, do it, but only because you want to, or must. Or because Catullus has a hold on you.

Daniel Lawless founded and edits the online monthly Plume: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and the annual print Plume Anthology of Poetry. His recent poems appear in Cortland Review, Meadow, The Louisville Review, Pif, Adirondack Review, and elsewhere.

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