Friday, May 21, 2004

Ron Silliman on the Free Radicals anthology, observing, among other things, that "a 150-page collection by Del Ray Cross would be a Major Event indeed." Hear hear!

I haven't seen the anthology, but I admit to having been a little weirded out by the subtitle, "American Poets Before Their First Books." The title suggests a catch-them-while-you-can, next-big-thing tone to the project, a tone Ron generally adopts himself. But--as came up in Ron's comment boxes--does this make too much of the holy grail that is the First Book?

A number of the poets in the anthology--Jim and Del, and I'm sure most of the others--certainly do have books, and sometimes more than one. I have some of them. But however good they are, I guess these are only chapbooks and not Books.

So what does the latter mean? Perfect binding? More than 50 pages? Publication by a prestigious press with access to major distributors?

What makes the First Book, perhaps, is its role as the first major milestone in the Career, its announcement of arrival. I wonder, though, whether this model still makes sense--or, more modestly, whether it makes sense for everyone. In a poetry world that's mostly networked and localized (as opposed to public and national) does everyone have to have "ambition" in the old-fashioned sense, or does ambition always have to find expression in high-profile book publication? Might not all these insignificant web publications and chapbooks and blogs be not just stepping stones but other ways of getting something done? Are people going to be disappointed with the folks in Free Radicals if they don't come out with a book from Knopf or Graywolf or Fence in the next two years?

I don't presume to speak for the actual intentions or ambitions of any of the poets in an anthology I haven't read. But I do wonder if the way the anthology's framed imposes an arc of the Career that might be stifiling to what some of them might be trying to do.

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