Bettering American Poetry 2015
True story. I once sat in an office while a very wise woman explained to me the nature of restorative relationships. I was telling her about a person I had lost, who meant the world to me. About how much I missed him. A lot of other things were said too, mostly about how this particular person had made my life immeasurably better, merely by being present. Mostly, I tried to tell her about how he made up for things in my life that were bad. Things that hurt me and caused me pain. I think I said something like: Spending time with him made me feel better.
‘Better.’ Here we come to it. Better (or ‘bettering’) is an interesting word. It’s the word that the ten editors of Bettering American Poetry 2015 eventually agreed on to represent the vision of their shared project, a project that first came into being after the exhaustion and anger and sadness they experienced while watching the Michael Derrick Hudson scandal of Best American Poetry 2015 play itself out. What these editors have created, the book I hold now in my hands, is a varied collection of often beautiful, always vital, sometimes pointed, sometimes haunting poems that comprise an anthology that may be more than merely another book. Rather, this may be the anthology, the book itself, as a restorative relationship. I read it, and I feel better. It’s not that there isn’t sadness or anger or confusion reflected in these pages — Because there is! There has to be! — but there’s also existing. Being despite the myriad forces working against being. Keeping on keeping on.
On top of everything else that Bettering American Poetry 2015 is, it is an anthology that avoids a few traps into which some other anthologies fall. It is certainly corrective, in that it privileges the writing of women, POC, LGBTQIA+, and the disabled, writers not always represented equally in the pages of mainstream literary journals and anthologies. But more than that, it is an honest anthology, because it has been assembled along transparent means. As four of the editors write in the book’s introduction: “We the co-editors of this anthology are incapable of objectifying our taste, nor do we believe that any editor is so capable — such a premise, in the end, merely preserves privilege and reifies the literary status quo. When we write our own poems, we are constantly aware of the dominant poetics inscribed into our skin, we are too alert to the languages that we are supposed to replicate on the page, and we actively resist our programming as much as we can every day. How can we pretend to do any differently when selecting poems for an anthology like this one?” This is editing, it seems, as both an act of selection, and an act of resistance. And in fact, after rejecting the idea that solicitation of poets for the anthology by individual editors could ever be seen as nepotism, the editors also write: “Nepotism is the politics of getting further ahead; we are interested in the poetics of self-defense.” As such, the biggest corrective Bettering American Poetry 2015 offers may simply be its existence, and in its refusal to categorize itself as ‘best’ (or any iteration of best). Again, I give you the editors, again from the introduction: “even though the ‘new’ and the ‘best’ may be flashier, sexier, and more marketable ways to anthologize poetry, what we hope to offer with this collection is: the remembered.” (It occurs to me that by avoiding ‘new,’ a term that sometimes can be code for ‘young,’ the anthology also avoids any hints of ageism.)
So far I’ve discussed Bettering American Poetry 2015 as a successful project. (In fact, the project itself feels necessary, a loaded word, to be sure when it comes to poetry, appearing with ubiquity, as it does, in sometimes hyperbolic blurbs, but I think this collection earns it.) However, the anthology is also hugely successful as a collection of poetry. A good, general anthology — by general, I am referring to anthologies not organized around aesthetic or thematic principles — should have breadth, in my mind, and this one certainly has that. Bettering American Poetry 2015 is an anthology in the best sense of the word: a meeting place of different styles of poetry, different aesthetic principles, and different ways of approaching any number of subjects. Any reader will find poems to love, poems to like, poems to connect with, and poems that will ask us to question our own aesthetics. Bettering American Poetry 2015 values eclecticism, and in that sense, the book is a gift. (Throughout this review, I’ve avoided singling out specific poems by specific poets on purpose. What I most respond to need not be what most readers would respond to. This seems, somehow, in keeping with the editorial spirit of the book.)
Finally, I come back to existing. In some instances, I think, existing can be a form of resistance. And existence can be tiring. The experience of reading Bettering American Poetry 2015 reminded me a little bit of being on a road trip, and being thirsty, and stopping somewhere. To fix that. To quench the thirst. Maybe a more poetic way to say this would be: oasis in a desert. Or: shelter in a tempest. Again, we have the anthology as restorative relationship. (I remember myself, again, in that office, thinking about how one thing can make another thing better.) Certainly, these pages are a place to gather strength for the journey ahead. But they are also a clarion call to the world of poetry itself, to the editors and readers who make up that world. We should listen. If the series (because, after all, this is the first in a series) can work this magic, it may begin to restore poetry itself.