Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin: Journal, Day Five

By Michael Dumanis

Cate Marvin and Michael Dumanis recently edited an anthology together. This week, they’re trading journal entries about the process.

Michael here, with one final diary entry.

It occurred to me, as I was reading the multiple threads below, that there may be a perception or expectation that in coediting an anthology of contemporary younger poets, Cate and I sought to single out 85 specific poets of our generation as “the ones who do interesting things” or to create a kind of aesthetic school out of this group. After all, other anthologies have done this, either by announcing the arrival on (and takeover of) the scene by Beat poets, New Formalists, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Objectivists, what have you, or by implying, as Paul Carroll did in 1968, that his Young American Poets were the only genuinely good young poets out there, period, as far as he was concerned. A lot of hubbub has arisen from successive editions of the Norton Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry or the Poulin Contemporary American Poetry anthology—who have the editors plucked from the canon this time? Who has been “rediscovered”? Who has quietly snuck in for the first time, below the radar? Others previously unfamiliar with our book may have the perception or expectation that our anthology is a kind of catch-all younger poets directory, the way that Paul Auster’s (in my opinion, excellent) anthology of French Poetry provides a fairly definitive guide to French poetry in translation or J. Kates’s In The Grip of Strange Thoughts serves, to my mind, as a great, comprehensive survey of post-Soviet Russian poetry.

In 2000, Gerald Costanzo and Jim Daniels edited an ambitious, highly-democratic-in-its-tastes, massive anthology called American Poetry; the Next Generation, which sought to serve as a Who’s Who of 170+ younger poets with at least one book who were active in 2000. Our anthology, Legitimate Dangers, was also interested in being representative of our generation, yes, and in our introduction, Cate and I make many assertions we hold firmly about the poets in this book and about the aesthetic directions prevalent among younger poets today—for instance, we discuss at length the influences Modernists have had on younger poets—but our anthology also seeks to do something a little different. We don’t view Legitimate Dangers as an anthology of poets, but as an anthology of poems. Instead of deciding on our contributors and then asking them for work of their choice to show us, as happens with some other anthologies, we spent over a year reading all the work we could find by an overwhelming number of poets and decided on which poems were particularly representative to what interested us in contemporary American poetry—specifically we picked poems that seemed most in resonance with the Robert Frost quote that gave our anthology its title:

There are no two things as important to us in life as being threatened and being saved. What are ideals of form for if we aren’t going to be made to fear for them? All our ingenuity is lavished on getting into danger legitimately so that we may be genuinely rescued.

We then asked 85 poets for specific poems we wanted included, regardless of whether these were the contributors’ personal favorites, etc. An anthology should not lead to a cult of personality for the poets included. Rather, our hope is that Legitimate Dangers brings attention not just to the writers but the specific poems that strike us as so extraordinary. I can say without any hesitation that I personally am moved by and love reading and rereading every single poem in this book. Hopefully, some of these selections of poems will cast certain contributors in a new light for readers already familiar with them. You may already know Joe Wenderoth’s work, or be familiar with some things by Greg Williamson or Terrance Hayes, but have you looked carefully at these particular Williamson, Wenderoth, or Hayes poems? It is the poems themselves, not just the authors, we are most invested in.

A few years ago, in a pub in Houston, a former teacher of ours, Rodney Jones, one of the two writers this books is dedicated to, shared with me his reservations about yet another anthology that came out seeking to brand the poets in its pages as a very specific new aesthetic movement. Rodney told me editors should just be honest and acknowledge that they’re including the poets they’re including because of their own personal taste, first and foremost, and any discussion of new aesthetic schools or movements is secondary, a way to justify the tastes of the editor. Rodney told me that if he was to edit an anthology, he would be more honest and call the anthology “Taste.”

While coediting Legitimate Dangers, I thought a lot about Rodney’s comment. This book has a lot to do with my personal taste and Cate’s personal taste. Our tastes are both broad and divergent. Cate, in an earlier post, mentions her interest in Housman, Charlotte Mew, and May Swenson, an interest I don’t necessarily share. Cate and I overlap on our love of Plath and Berryman (although I find a lot of later confessional poetry suspect and I am probably less interested than she is in narrative poems-of-experience). While I too feel a great affinity for Stevens and Gerard Manley Hopkims, I probably come to poetry from a slightly different place than Cate does—like her friend Danny, I am excited by New York School and Black Mountain influences on contemporary poetry. I’ve always been fascinated by Stein and the influence of Stein on later generations, while equally being taken with the clean, stark, lonely poems of Donald Justice and Mark Strand. I have a weakness for the formal hijinks of Heather McHugh and Frederick Seidel, and also for the meditative ever-expanding complexities of Jorie Graham and Michael Palmer. Our tastes informed each other in the editing of this book.

We wanted to represent what we both particularly loved, what we found most exciting about our generation, but there is plenty going on in our generation that cannot fit into even a 500-page book, and certainly there are quite a few fascinating poets from our generation whose poems may have slightly more resonance with other editors than with me and Cate. I disagree with the naysayers who worry about the future of poetry in America—this is a fertile and exciting time to be a young American poet. There are hundreds of younger poets Cate and I admire. For this book to be a manageable read and for us to be able to focus on several poems per author, we had to restrict our selections to 85. But I encourage everyone to read not only the poems in this book and the books of poems by the poets included and the 85 additional writers we recommend in the anthology’s appendix. Read as much of the new and the fresh as you can get your hands on, since the poets of our generation are, I believe, writing a tremendous amount of great work, making an already substantial contribution to the body of American letters.

Thank you for reading and yours,

Michael Dumanis

Originally Published: January 27th, 2006