Michael Wiegers, editor at Copper Canyon Press, pulled out this fact to explain why he organized a panel called “Books Every Poet should Read (But Probably Hasn’t).”
“With so many books coming out, the publishing industry puts serious marketing pressures on literary titles and can end up silencing them,” he said.
The idea was for the panelists—editors from other small poetry presses—to recommend books that for one reason or another have stopped circulating. A packed crowd under four gigantic faux crystal chandeliers in Ballroom A at the Hilton in Atlanta clearly disoriented the panelists. Who were these people? Instead of shoving manuscripts in editors’ faces, they were scribbling down book titles to, uh, maybe buy?

First up: Jeffrey Shotts, marketing director at Graywolf Press. To figure out his recs, he recalled what got him started reading poetry. He turned to the familiar. Born and raised in Central Kansas, he found that William Stafford’s work spoke to him in an authentic, clear, contemporary voice. He wasn’t, however, recommending that we read Stafford’s widely anthologized poems such as “Traveling through the Dark.” Rather, he suggested that we let the familiar lead us to the unfamiliar. In Stafford’s case, to the darker, deeply political poems that he wrote as a result of being a conscientious objector during World War II. Shotts also recommended Lorine Niedecker—another regional, strangely familiar regional voice.
Any doctor’s in the house? Matthew Zapruder, editor of Wave Books, definitely could have used some Xanax during panel prep time. Filled with anxiety about his recommendations—that they would reveal he’s not all that well read, that the recommended books from his shelf would publicly out his esoteric lifestyle (Hey, Matt, we already know about that. Remember the Poetry Bus tour?), he, too, turned to first encounters. As a grad student at U. Mass., someone handed him Robert Creeley’s For Love, and some James Dickey.
But what he really wanted to talk about was his general anxiety about walking into the book exhibition and being intimidated by zillions of books. How do you decide what to read? Resist the urge to categorize, he said, which is what he doesn’t like about Silliman’s blog, how everything is always sorted into categories until “every poet becomes an exemplar of a category.” As an editor, he tries to resist that. And oh yeah, Yannos Ritsos’ book Exile and Return changed his life.
Did anyone else think Joshua Beckman’s Ginsberg-ish mop of hair is looking a bit more trim than the Poetry Bus tour days? Ginsberg would have definitely high-fived Beckman’s non-recommendations, the ploy he’d invented to deal with how ridiculous he thought the panel title was, and how more ridiculous it would be when only 10 people showed up, and now, Oh My God, there were hundreds of people staring at him scribbling down everything he said.
Beckman, who is also editor at Wave Books, forged ahead. Unlike Zapruder, he likes to think in categories. For example, he likes literary canons, and then he doesn’t like them because they’re finite. He started thinking that a canon of categories might be helpful. Every poet, he recommended, should read regional poets. Every poet should read contemporary and not contemporary poets. Every poet should have books of varying size on their shelf, so that he or she doesn’t start thinking in 81/2 X 11 format. Poets should read books they think they know, such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. “We all know what the dude looks like, but having a relationship with the book that is that shallow is detrimental to writing. I mean, what does it mean when we say, ’That’s so Kafka-esque.’”
He finished with—every poet also needs to have ambitious books on their shelves. Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems has been on Beckman’s shelf for years. “It’s so daunting, incredible, and strange, he said—gesturing to give a size of its massive bulk—that I kept thinking this is beyond me; I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it, but I kept it there to give me a sense of what could be. “
Beckman’s mention of ambitious books fired up the panelists. Jeffrey Shot recommended Blake’s wonderful, but most political and bloody difficult poems like “Daughters of Albion” and “Jerusalem.” Zapruder cautioned against the latter confessing that the ONLY time he took acid he read Jerusalem and it gave him a really horrible feeling. But having such negative reactions is a good thing, he said, kind of like “throwing spitballs at girls because you like them.” States of not knowing are to be encouraged.
The final panelist to speak, Matvei Yankelvich, from Ugly Duckling Press, definitely knew so much about what avant-garde writers would make of the panel that he wrote it all down instead of speaking extemporaneously. He talked so fast that we couldn’t get it all down, but he said he would give us his remarks later in the day to post on Harriet. We really want to read them because they’re a refutation of a little yellow pamphlet that n+1 included in their last issue. More to come….

Originally Published: March 1st, 2007

Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...