Waiting for the Tide to Come In

On assembling an anthology of contemporary women's poetry.

For Susan Aizenberg and Erin Belieu, the reason for editing their anthology of female poets, The Extraordinary Tide was clear: “We wanted a book we could hand to young poets and say, ‘Here's what's happening in American women's poetry today’—a book we sorely missed when we were students hoping to learn from our elders.”

The scene is a group of poets gathered for dinner during a break in the writers' conference. At the long restaurant table we drink wine, flirt, and gossip, not necessarily in that order. Columbia University Press has just published our new anthology, The Extraordinary Tide, a collection that brings together 120 contemporary women poets and is the only nonthematic anthology of its kind. One of the men calls out across the table, "Well, if you ladies are going to have your own separate book, we ought to put together something just for men!" A woman replies, "You already have that, remember? It's called the canon."

There’s the briefest of pauses in the conversation as the flicker of something uncomfortable slips around the table. Then everybody laughs; we're all friends here, after all. And the man who made the comment isn’t a bad guy—certainly not the clueless cartoon of a chest-thumping misogynist--in fact, he's a well-published writer with a high profile editing job. But still, the joke resonates. What does it mean at this point in history to put together an anthology exclusive to women writers? Why is such a book necessary?

Our initial impulses were motivated by both a feminist spirit and a practical urge. We are creative writing professors who each semester have dragged ourselves to the copy center with armloads of books to create course packets. We wanted a book we could hand to young poets and say, "Here's what's happening in American women's poetry today"—a book we sorely missed when we were students hoping to learn from our elders.

That’s not to say that as students we were only interested in reading women writers. Not at all. As is true for all women readers, we had learned as little girls to read fluidly across gender, transposing ourselves into a whole host of speakers and characters (a handy skill which must be one of the accidental, if not uncomplicated, gifts given to women by patriarchal culture). For both of us, some of our earliest and most beloved contemporary influences were male writers—Richard Hugo, James Dickey, Robert Pinsky, Theodore Roethke, Philip Levine, and David Wojahn.

But even when we were undergraduate students, as recently as the mid-80s, years after women like Plath, Rich, Sexton, and Kumin had cracked open the door of the poetry boys’ club, it was still difficult to find anthologies and magazines that included a large and diverse selection of women writers’ work, outside of those devoted to overt and often dated political themes.

So we assumed that such an anthology must exist. Something clearly essential to readers, writers and scholars just had to be out there, didn’t it? With the profound impact women’s voices had made on late 20th-century poetics? With the sheer number of women entering MFA programs, understandably eager to learn from the work of their fore-sisters? With bookstore shelves jammed with anthologies devoted to every group, theme and form an editor could think to pitch to a publishing house: dogs and cars, Formalists and Post-Modernists, under 30s, over 40s, Jimmy, Janis and The Beatles?

And then finally, when of course we couldn’t find any such anthology, we were genuinely stunned. Stunned and appalled and, frankly, a bit pissed off. Shouldn’t someone rectify this omission? We started discussing how we might go about putting such a book together. We talked to publishers, then wrote and revised a detailed proposal. One of the larger independent poetry presses wanted to take it, but once the production costs were calculated, they saw that it was too expensive. Next the proposal went to Columbia University Press, where one of Susan’s former students urged it on his editor. At his advice, we polished the proposal a little more and began to make progress, though there was still one final gauntlet to run.

As is the case with all books published by scholarly presses, the proposal for The Extraordinary Tide was sent to outside reviewers, those anonymous and mysterious beings who make their pronouncements from the academic star chamber. The most aggravating response came from a female scholar who began her critique by stating unequivocally that she was against all-women anthologies on principle. This reader was an Elizabeth Bishop scholar; Bishop once famously declared that she’d never allow herself to appear in a women-only anthology.

Our proposal slowly slogged through the usual committees of marketing execs, publishers, and editors. Finally, after months of tedious writing and rewriting of proposals and subproposals, we signed our contracts and got to work.

Right away the horror stories started up. Poets and editors described the politics involved in editing such a book—they told cautionary tales about co-editors who ended up suing one another. Legendary fistfights were mentioned.

But for us there were no fistfights. The dull truth is that, for us, putting the anthology together was an effortless, natural collaboration. We were lucky enough to have the same initial mentor, Art Homer at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, who taught us that the art of poetry is all about checking your ego at the door.

We agreed that we would each separately choose poems to consider, and then we’d agree on the ones that made the final cut.

We spent hours reading poems to each other and talking about poetry, in the kind of intuitive shorthand shared by longtime friends. There were hurdles. A major publisher huffily demanded permission fees in excess of our entire budget. At one point Susan had to play the heavy when our publisher lost important documents they suggested were never sent. A couple of times Erin had to stand her ground when someone was imperious about money or the number of pages of their work we’d included. Other hurdles: the poetry diva who spoke of herself only in third person, or the one we could reach only through a none-too-friendly partner, who demanded a truly ridiculous sum we couldn't possibly afford.

Yet usually we found an atmosphere of welcome. Even the one poet who did not wish to be included in an all women's anthology wrote us a long letter explaining why and including what seemed like heartfelt good wishes.

So now the anthology we longed for is out there. There may be some who’ll still argue that such a collection is unnecessary, or or that it reinforces those identity ghettos women have worked hard to move beyond. But we believe it's not enough to sit politely and wait for the old school tastemakers to notice how good we’ve always been. Until the day that the poetry establishment learns to read across gender as fluidly as all little girls must, an anthology such as ours will be necessary to teach them what they must eventually come to know.

Originally Published: January 20th, 2006

Susan Aizenberg's first full-length collection of poems, Muse (2002), was awarded Virginia Commonwealth University's Larry Levis Prize and the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry. She is the coeditor, with Erin Belieu, of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American women (2001). Aizenberg earned an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College and has...

Born in Nebraska, Erin Belieu earned an MA from Boston University and an MFA from Ohio State University. Belieu’s work focuses on gender, love, and history, filtering wide-ranging subject matter through a variety of theoretical frameworks. She often addresses feminist issues and uses poetic conventions and street talk. Belieu is...

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