Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Elective Affinities

A few of my poems, as well as a poetics statement are now part of Elective Affinities: a Cooperative Anthology of Contemporary U.S. Poetry, edited by Carlos Soto Román. The contributors also become editors. The idea is to "chart our own literary map where affinites, differences, and unexpected connections coexist in an ongoing, collective construction." I've followed this anthology - which is a blog website - with interest, and one reason is I'm curious who other poets name as their affinities, as those choices will determine the directions in which the anthology spirals outward.

What does "affinity" mean? After Carlos asked me to send work, including a list of five affinities, I made this long list of influences and then struggled to whittle it down. He let me have 11. I decided that an affinity would be not only a living poet whose work has influenced me deeply, but a poet I've met and conversed with, someone whose ideas about poetry often ring in my head. Of all the writing that's influenced my own, the work of those eleven is most directly in dialogue with mine.

The nature of the anthology foregrounds dialogue, community, even localism as the project expands to various places. Its unpredictability might help it avoid the pitfalls of typical anthologies, which have to draw stricter boundaries and are bound to be criticized for their shortsightedness, exclusivity or editorial judgment. At this point, the only criticism of Elective Affinities I can anticipate would be what Jacob Russell calls "The Lost Gatekeeper Lament" - which is ideologically opposed to "affinities" of artists and is willfully blind to the vibrant literary communities that exist right now (that you can find in Philadelphia, for example). I recommend Russell's recent post about this - he picks apart one such lament from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

My affinities turned out to be mostly Philadelphia-based writers. But perhaps another concern: they were also mostly white men from a similar class background. How bout that. It's interesting to me how the project might illustrate lines of class, race, gender and age in poetry circles. But especially class, since the work of all of those eleven poets addresses on some level class conflict or economic disparity and its social effects, and this topic - which seems to me very politically urgent - is by and large ignored in much of the American media I encounter, including poetry - and that ignorance is destructive. (It also happens that this concern is usually absent from the Gatekeeper Laments.)

In a letter Gil Ott wrote me once (in 2002) he lamented the fact that the United States has become so stratified that it is not only possible but likely that when one travels through this country one does so without leaving one's own social class. Gil's writing has taught me a few things about traveling, inner landscapes and texts included. One is that traveling is not vacationing.

Elective Affinites is ongoing, and I like that, too - and that it's happening in 14 other countries. I'm curious to see where it goes.