Editors Out. Networking In.

Bernstein, Ashbery, and Emanuel read in support of McSweeney’s Poets Picking Poets.

by Jessica Winter
Next time you’re planning a party and feeling expansive, you might consider assembling the guest list using the same exquisite-corpse methodology that shapes The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets. Curator Dominic Luxford started with 10 poems by 10 poets, then asked each writer to choose a second poem of his or her own, plus a favorite by another poet. Then the poets in the second group of 10 were asked to do the same, and so forth until the participants had gathered 100 poems by 50 poets. “You can feel perfectly justified in reading this anthology improvisationally, because it was put together exactly the same way,” David Orr instructs us in his introduction. The result is a collection that, in its basic programming, shares happy affinities with a social-networking site.

In a recent reading co-sponsored by McSweeney’s and Poetry, Lynn Emanuel, John Ashbery, and Charles Bernstein took the stage at Mo Pitkin’s in New York’s East Village to mark the publication of Poets Picking Poets. Emanuel said she preferred the book’s chain-letter approach to anthologizing poetry over the usual rubric of “tradition, influence, and genealogy.” “It’s so much more liberating than the idea of influence, as if influence is automatically a good thing,” said Emanuel, who later read “Inside Gertrude Stein,” a poem that inverts our usual expectations of influence (“Being inside Gertrude is like being inside a monument made of a cloud which is always moving across the sky which is also always moving”).

Bernstein read from a libretto for an opera about Walter Benjamin, which he dedicated to Scooter Libby—now there’s a chain of influence. He also paid tribute to one of Poets Picking Poets’ forerunners, the annual journal Chain, which used a similar string theory for spontaneously generating poem cycles. In their first issue in 1993, editors Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr wrote that Chain’s unplanned linkages might be a way to happen upon new voices and allow “poems inside a structure” (i.e., a journal or anthology) to “become interactive”—as if, to return to the party analogy, each poem were introducing the next to a growing circle of acquaintances, giving each piece context within a bustling public forum.

The daisy-chain technique also allows the curious reader to play a game of curatorial connect-the-dots. Dean Young chooses one of his blurb providers, Mary Ruefle, author of “A Poem by Dean Young” (just as Dean Young is the author of “A Poem by Mary Ruefle”). Tomaz Salamun (who writes in Slovenian) chooses one of his translators, Thomas Kane. Yusef Komunyakaa chooses Tracy K. Smith, his former colleague in the creative-writing program at Princeton; Smith in turn chooses her friend Tina Chang. (Smith and Chang’s mutual admiration also runs to taking each other’s author photos.) And so on. Especially with the most prominent names on the roster, Poets Picking Poets might have only gained in effulgence if a few more participants had stretched themselves beyond their immediate milieu—if they’d broken the chain, so to speak.

Still, it’s apt that an anthology imagining a social life for poems would be built in part on friendships and affiliations kindled by poetry. At its best, Poets Picking Poets links pieces that converse with each other, fulfilling Chain’s vision of greater interactivity between poems. The book invites the reader to approach reading as an act of recombining—for example, the miraculous bird born of a tin in Sarah Lindsay’s “Cheese Penguin” waddles straight into the midst of the watchful menagerie in Pattiann Rogers’ “A Common Sight.” The wistful epiphanies of Brenda Hillman’s “Clouds Near San Leandro” could be spoken by the couples in C.D. Wright’s pair of oneiric, sensual poems. The acquisitive ruthlessness of the empress dowager in Chang’s “Reign” and the deadly procreative urges of the aquatic life in Larissa Szporluk’s “Leaving the Eccentric” become unlikely counterpoints of instinctive brute force.

Through sheer proximities, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts in Poets Picking Poets—and never more cohesively than in the opening chain. In its loping evocation of a gorgeous summer’s day full of cautious hope and camaraderie, David Berman’s “The Charm of 5:30” is the ideal poem to begin this project:
It all reminds me of that moment when you take off your sunglasses
after a long drive and realize it’s earlier
and lighter out than you had accounted for.

You know what I’m talking about,

And that’s the kind of fellowship that’s taking place in town, out in
the public spaces. You won’t overhear anyone using the words
“dramaturgy” or “state inspection” today. We’re too busy getting along.
A unique fellowship takes place in the ensuing poem chain, which leads from Berman to Brett Eugene Ralph, Bernd Sauermann, James Tate, and Charles Simic. Ralph’s “Flowering Judas” seems to blossom just one yard over from “Charm of 5:30”—the same winds stir the grass; the phone ringing in one poem is answered in the other—as if the poems could invite each other over for a beer or, as in Ralph’s “Firm Against the Pattern,” for a draught of “hundred-year-old Romanian wine . . . meted out, so help me God, / from a Mrs. Butterworth bottle.” In Tate’s “The Radish,” the title veggie is discovered in a supermarket that might be located in the same neighborhood as Charles Simic’s “The Devils,” “an ambiguous world / Deserted by Providence,” featuring an apartment building haunted by demons and spiders and the noise from neighbors’ TVs. The quintet of poems reads as a chronicle of summer gone to seed: the tipsy, convivial air of the early entries thickens with heat, claustrophobia, and too much gin. In the case of this exquisite sequence, Orr’s call for improvisational reading might well be heeded: to change the ending, simply read it in reverse.
Originally Published: August 25, 2007


On June 23, 2007 at 10:03am Francisco Aragón wrote:
I love the idea behind this anthology.

(It reminds me of the collective book review

that JACKET recently posted of Brenda

Hillman's recent book of poetry: a roster of

poets of quite different stripes each choose a

poem from the collection and write a paragraph

about it, with Michael Palmer closing with a


I picked up POETS PICKING POETS (I almost

bought it), dipped into it in the Barnes and

Noble on Union Square in NYC. The part of the

idea that I love is the unpredictability (and

therefore surprise) of the outcome.

In theory, that initial ten poet selection is

perhaps the closest one might get to an

editorial vision, which of course can be

completely trumped depending on how much

the poets "stretched themselves" in their own

selections, as Winter points out in her piece.

Therein lies the risk: that poets will only choose

poems by poets they KNOW, as opposed to

poems by living poets they have READ, but

whose authors they don't necesarily know.

Two final observations: It was a surprise and a

delight to see Ralph Angel, whose work I love,

introduce readers to a fresh brand new voice--

at least to me: Angel Garcia. And it was also

interesting to note (with the exception of

Rodrigo Toscano) how seemingly "off the

radar" poems by Latino and Latina poets were

in this particular round of daisy-chaining.

On June 27, 2007 at 9:09am James Kepple wrote:
Poet Compilations are lame

On July 26, 2007 at 7:45am Rhudolf D Munro wrote:
Where are the African/American poets?

Maybe I missed that section. You never have anything from the African /American community of poets.

Thank you, Rhudolf D Munro

On July 26, 2007 at 11:01am Michael wrote:
Rhudolf-- I'm not sure if your comment is in reference to the anthology discussed or to the site in general, but if it's the site in general, here's a list of links for you!

On July 30, 2007 at 5:29pm nate van til wrote:
Poets are on the lamb.

Compilations are lamé.

Golden lambs are lame.

Mallarmé were to lament, "The

recursive, self-serve luminaries

may eliminate the meddle-man."

Lamb-bent light-lick 'I Am's: lambent

bent iambs maim wit, right? L'chaim!

On August 7, 2007 at 3:44pm Daniel wrote:
I wrote a similar, shorter review of this book here:

Not bad, overall. Worth having for the novelty.

Also: You mentioned The Exquisite Corpse! It was just reprinted by Godine this year, along with Jamie is My Heart's Desire. Yay Alfred Chester!

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Jessica Winter’s writing appears in Time Out London, The Boston Globe, Slate, and elsewhere.

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