Monday, April 02, 2007

Second Hand News - Pitt anthology series features 40 years of poetry

The real story--

I have this anthology on my wish list and hope to buy it soon. It looks terrific.

Pitt anthology series features 40 years of poetry

By Regis Behe
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Poetry is not the most popular of art forms. Sure, there are hundreds of thousands of would-be poets, numerous online sites and communities devoted to poetry, and readings in most major metropolitan areas.

But when it comes to the arts, poets are like forgotten cousins. They don't have image problems because, save the occasional Maya Angelou sighting, they don't have images. They're anonymous, hidden in plain sight, riding buses and bicycles to and from work, raising families in the suburbs. They are teachers and academics, waiters and waitresses, nurses and gardeners.

And for 40 years, they've sent their manuscripts to the University of Pittsburgh Press. Celebrating four decades of publishing, the press has just released "American Poetry Now: Pitt Poetry Anthology Series." The collection features poems by two former U.S. poet laureates, Billy Collins and Ted Kooser. There are poets only poets and diehard enthusiasts know, such as Bob Hicock and Daisy Fried. There are poets who live in Pittsburgh, including Jan Beatty, Anthony Butts, Jim Daniels, Toi Derricotte and Lynn Emanuel.

"I've always tried to have a very catholic approach to what I do," says series editor Ed Ochester, who has been with the press for 29 years. "There are lots of people doing different kinds of things, all of which are excellent in their own kind. ... I try to be open to what we do and what we read."

One of the things Ochester is most proud of is that the University of Pittsburgh Press goes against the academic conceit that poetry must be serious and ponderous, of great weight and importance, in order to be significant.

In the collection's introduction, Ochester argues otherwise. Instead of teaching Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queene," it's better to lure students to poetry with newer, more contemporary works. When he spent time as a visiting poet in high schools, he noted that students "were interested and often wildly enthusiastic when presented with contemporary poems that spoke to their concerns in their own language."

"The poetry that is often being promulgated in secondary schools and colleges is not bad stuff ... but in general, it's always the stuff that's been approved and looks a little bit old to the young people reading it," Ochester says.

That's why Ochester believers there are fewer people attracted to the form, despite its influence over everything from adverting copy to rock and hip-hop lyrics. Poetry, despite being framed and presented as a staid, ponderous art form, is supposed to entertain. He notes that Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote what was considered to be, at least in their lifetimes, entertaining works.

"There's been, for whatever reason, a notion that somehow poetry is very serious, mysterious," Ochester says. "That it may be a great genre for literature, but it's beyond a simple person like myself. That's historically nonsense. Poetry was one of the forms of literature and forms of entertainment, in the past and in the present. Anyone who thinks that poetry is essentially an elite art in the sense that it has an extremely limited audience is wrong, in historical terms and in terms of many of the best writers who are writing now."

And many of those are writers who have found homes with the Pitt press. Many of them, such as Collins and Kooser, were relatively unknown to the public at large, their relative fame happening after years of hard work. One of Ochester's points of pride is the number of manuscripts that have "come over the transom," completely unsolicited. Works by Hicok and Fried came to Pitt this way, and Ochester is especially proud that the press is not only self-supporting, but also does not charge a reading fee.

Ochester also revels in publishing poets like Denise Duhamel, who were summarily rejected by other presses.

"It was because what she was doing looked, to a lot of presses, to be so wild and so unusual and so readable and so much fun," Ochester says. "I think they didn't want to do it on that basis."

Ochester also points to the number of poets with Pittsburgh connections who have been published by the press. Noting poetry presses at Carnegie Mellon University and the independent Autumn House, Ochester believes that the confluence of poets and presses makes Pittsburgh one of the premier centers of poetry in the country.
But he's quick to add that every poet with local ties published by the press has earned publication.

"I've always been a little bit leery of publishing local people just because it looks parochial," Ochester says. "But the fact is that everyone we've published has also published successfully outside of Pittsburgh."

While Ochester is proud of the poets he's published, he's not about to anoint any of them as being for the ages. In the introduction he writes that the answer to the question "Where are the greats poet of today?" is "We don't know yet." Only time, Ochester thinks, will reveal who will be read in 50 years and beyond.

He does, however, think that some of the most inventive poets working today are published by Pitt press.

"I think of people are like Dean Young, Bob Hicok, Denise (Duhamel) , Daisy Fried, Virgil Suarez," Ochester says, noting that he won't name Pittsburgh-based poets, because he'd have to name them all. "All of these people have sold very well for books of poetry. And while they are not well-known, they are known to fans of poetry. I would say among those people, who are relatively young, are going to be the next poets who are extremely well-known."

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