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 sunglassesA 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.
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.