The New Census: A Conversation With Lauren Shapiro & Kevin A. Gonzalez

This week and next, we’ll feature The New Census: an Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, a lovely new book edited by Lauren Shapiro & Kevin A. Gonzalez, and published by Rescue Press. You can purchase the anthology here. By way of introduction to the feature:

Phrases about The New Census from an Online Chat:
…various aesthetics, preoccupations, and traditions, a body of American poets…a little like saying hi at a house party… “can we trade pants?”…“can I stir your drink with my hand?”…turn up your own volume…Sarah Manguso’s “Hell,” Eduardo Corral’s “Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome,” John Beer’s “Wasteland,” Adrian Matejka’s “English B”…unlike the history- and movement-conscious recent revision of Norton’s Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (ed. Paul Hoover)…(to be continued)…

1. How’d this anthology start? Why do we need another anthology of poetry?

The anthology started because the editors of Rescue Press were talking to us one day about the need for a new anthology of contemporary American poetry, or we were talking to them—we can’t remember. Small presses are popping up all over the country, and it gets harder and harder to keep up with all that’s out there. One can say this is the democratic blessing and the curse of the internet—so much material to filter—but that’s not really it. It has more to do with the empowerment of writers who don’t see the kind of writing they admire getting published by the more well-known publishing companies. These writers are starting their own presses and publishing some really great collections that don’t usually receive the circulation they deserve. One of the goals of this anthology was to give voice to these writers.

That said, we’re both teachers, and we’re tired of putting together course packets all the time. We wanted to make a collection that could be used in the classroom to give students a sense of the vibrant work that is being published now. One could say that’s what many editors of anthologies are trying to do, but when those anthologies were published ten or fifteen years ago, and they consisted mostly of writers who were already well-established in the poetry world at the time, well, we thought it was time for a new one.

2. Tell us a little about your process for selecting poets/poems to include. What were some of the hardest calls to make?

We started by compiling a long list, with the help of the Rescue Press editors, and input from several trusted poet-friends. At this stage, before we got in touch with any of the writers, we bought and read hundreds of books so that we could familiarize ourselves with new writing as well. This process—of reading individual collections and building and narrowing this list—took between one and two years. It should be noted, also, that Caryl Pagel, the editor of Rescue Press, was going through this process with us. We’d have occasional meetings—usually at the Crystal Corner Bar in Madison—in which we’d discuss and trade books.

We absolutely did not want to get stuck selecting poets who merely fit our own taste and winding up with the Kevin and Lauren (and Caryl) show. We also didn’t want to include writers who had too many books out—the goal was to include those who we felt had more to show. Then we went through the list and tried to choose writers whose work we felt strongly about and who would complement each other in an anthology. Once we had compiled the list, we asked each writer to send 15 representative pages of poems they would be happy to include in the anthology. We often made suggestions as to which poems from their books we would like to see included, but we wanted to give each poet some control and freedom as to their selection (as well as the opportunity to show us new, unpublished work that we would not have been familiar with), and we went from there. There were times when we (Kevin, Lauren, Caryl) disagreed, and we tried to let everyone have as much of a say as possible, but, of course, we’re very happy with the final selection.

3. Your introduction avoids explicit claims about poetics and literary history. What implicit claims do you think The New Census makes about contemporary poetry? Do you hope this anthology in any way offers a counter-history or corrective view?

We did feel that there was a need for a new anthology, but we didn’t put the book together as a specific reaction to anything that’s already out there. We believe this anthology is just completely different from what’s currently available. The anthology that ours most closely approximates, in our opinion, is American Poetry: The Next Generation, which was published about 15 years ago by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and which limits its selection to poets who were under 40 years of age at the time of its publication. Of course, the literary landscape has changed significantly since then, and many of those poets, who may have been considered ‘emerging’ at the time, are now well-established. Likewise, the majority of the poets in our anthology hadn’t even published their first book at that time. That said, we didn’t believe we needed to justify the collection in any way except to state what our goals were, which were simply to create a book that would collect writers whose work we’re excited about, and who we feel will be bringing more to the poetry world in the future. We kept stylistic diversity in mind, and we wanted, also, to showcase some poets published by small independent presses that we feel are doing terrific work alongside those published by larger independent publishers and university presses. But it’s not an “avant-garde” anthology, or an anthology of poets published by small independent presses, or an anthology of women writers, or any such limiting approach. It’s simply a collection of new American poets.

4. I don’t have time to read your anthology. Which three poems from it might convince me I’m wrong?

This is a very difficult question. It was hard enough to limit the collection as much as we had to, so to choose three representative poems would be madness. That said, we’ll each pick three poems that help show the range of the anthology: Tyehimba Jess, “Blind Tom, One Body, Two Graves Brooklyn/Georgia,” Suzanne Buffam, “The New Experience,” Nick Lantz, “Of the Parrat and Other Birds That Can Speak,” Sabrina Orah Mark, “The Very Nervous Family,” Darcie Dennigan, “The Job Interview”, and Adrian Matejka, “Battle Royale”

5. Anthologies are easy to criticize. What do you think snarky bloggers and well-laureled professors will complain about after reading The New Census?

One of the unfortunate outcomes of anthologies is that they create the insider-outsider mentality. In other words, readers (most of whom will also be writers) will complain about who’s in and who’s out. This, we think, will be the nature of most complaints. In other words, how the anthology might have been different if X person had been the editor. This kind of criticism is inevitable. Our response would be, make your own anthology. We’d love to read it! Enjoy the permissions process!

6. If you had to put a photograph of a currently dead poet on the cover of the anthology, which currently dead poet would you choose? What would you like the photograph to show this dead poet doing?

It would have to be something dramatic and exciting but also self-aware. Lauren’s pick would be the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the avant-garde poet and artist working around the turn of the century–one of the photos in which she’s all contorted, wearing a birdcage and kicking one leg into the air. Kevin finds the phrasing of your question fascinating. What do you mean by currently dead? I hesitate to mention a dead poet, as the question seems to imply that he or she may, at some point in time, cease to be dead, and I don’t want an undead poet coming after me.

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