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Toward an Ideal Anthology
by Karl Young


Etymologically, the word "anthology" means a bundle of flowers. During the late medieval period, monks made collections of favorite texts for their own use or for members of their orders. Private collections offer satisfactions, as you can see among people who collect stamps or coins or, well, you name it and you can find somebody who collects whatever you've named. Anthropologists speak of "hunter-gatherer" societies, and it's easy enough to see hunting and gathering as among the most basic human characteristics and impulses. When keeping private collections does no harm, it's not something to dismiss or look down upon. However, most people who make personal collections want to share them. Last Christmas I received a CD and an audio tape of seasonal music from friends who initially put them together for their own use, then made additional copies as gifts. That I received two such collections from people who didn't know each other, suggests how many people turn such collections into presents. No matter how dogmatic anthologies can get, the sense of gift is usually there somewhere.

The sense of a gift seems an admirable editorial concept, and one that should not get lost no matter how anthologies change through time. Gifts often include hopes. Of course, gifts can act simply as bribes or as a means of coercing, conning, or appeasing people. Yet the hopes in gifts can even grow considerably from this simple form of transaction. A gift given in courtship, for instance, may include hopes for relatively quick and selfish gratification, but that doesn't necessarily exclude hopes for cooperation and shared happiness over extended periods of time.

Some of the most important anthologies published in recent centuries have acted as news vehicles. This is not out of keeping with the courtship theme: if you're in love, you want to tell the world. Aside from amorous enthusiasm, real news is hard to keep to yourself. If you've found something important, you'll probably want to tell people about it. Even as I write the beginning of this essay, there are a number of people I feel impatient to show it to.

News tends to stimulate a prescriptive impulse. Anthologies based in news may begin with the implication that this is something you gotta see to believe, but it will also tend to bring with it the implication that this is what people should read. Likewise, controversial news acts as a stimulant for debate and news of an atrocity asks people to seek a remedy. Remedial anthologies can act as advocates for groups of people or types of work that have previously been disenfranchised or excluded. Just as easily, they can move in such a way as to negate what some would see as news. Easily identifiable examples of these directions can be found in collections of work by minorities and of work meant to reestablish traditional forms and values.

The interrelation of inclusion and exclusion forms one of the basic dynamics of the process of anthology formation. In a simple collection of flowers, gatherers select the plants that they think look or smell best or carry the right kind of symbolism. The gatherers may find plants that might or might not be appropriate, and spend considerable time deciding on which to keep and which to exclude. This tension can become a dynamic force in the reading of anthologies as well as in their assembly. Readers who seek what may have been left out become ideal readers and extenders of the news in anthologies. As anthologies and the environment in which they function become more complex, exclusion becomes more important and can take on a negative role. This can grow from the problems any editor finds in work that may or may not fit the anthology's purposes. At times, some anthologists work primarily from the need to exclude what they dislike rather than what they wish to keep. Anthologies can thus become tools for something like excommunication just as easily as they can act as vehicles for enfranchisement.

Combining most of these elements, polemical anthologies can act as much as stimulants for new work as surveys of what has been done. Manifestos became something of an art form in themselves in the 20th Century. Perhaps the most enduring manifestos may not be those limited to a single rhetorical voice, but those which appeared as choruses in the form of anthologies.

No matter how complex the impulse to anthologize becomes, it almost invariably includes these elements, and to the editors, they become a means of trying to make the environment in which they operate better than it was before.

*

I saw my initial efforts at electronic publishing in a limited and tentative context. The first works I put on-line were Anarchist classics and a few poems, in the days when ftp, gopher, and bbs were the main means of electronic distribution. When the World Wide Web opened up to general use, it became clear to me that this would be as good an environment as I could find for creating an anthology of the poetry of the later decades of the 20th Century. Following nearly all the lines of collection mentioned above, I set about trying to represent as close to all the genres and tendencies of poetry produced during the era in what gets called "experimental" or "Avant Garde" modes.

Several factors came from characteristics of the web itself. First, it's nature made it open-ended in ways that print anthologies are not. The ink never dries on the web. The most immediately gratifying aspect of this comes to a print publisher from the fact that it allows you to correct typos. I'm not sure how much people not involved in print publishing understand how much misery these little fleas or heartaches or pestilences can inflict on a printer-publisher, or how they add up over the years. I didn't know it when I started on the web, but in the electronic environment typos became less of a problem: readers take them more or less for granted, and since they can always be corrected they weigh less heavily on the publisher's psyche. Thus the web provides liberation from an unwanted kind of permanence in two ways at once.

Lack of fixity fans out from there. Authors can revise and add to work that they publish on-line. Unlike a print anthology, the editor doesn't have to allot a certain amount of space to each contributor or each work. In some instances, charges for disk space can become expensive, but at least in its potential, web space is virtually unlimited. Going by author, if the work of X seems to require several hundred pages to make its point, the editor can include that much. You don't have to assign each contributor a limited number of pages, or use volume as a qualitative signifier in which the more prestigious authors get more than those assigned a lower status. Volume as an indicator of status disappears along with the worries about how to apportion limited space.

On the web, which acts as a world wide distribution system in a literal sense, there's no reason why you can't present work in multiple languages, and you can add translations as you go along, not requiring them to be on-hand by a specific deadline. If the presence of work on the Web finds translators among readers, as it has done a number of times at Light and Dust, so much the better. Like most editors, I know more about what's going on in my own part of the world than anywhere else. But the global environment of the Web allows considerable outreach beyond that. The tendency toward expanded areas of possibility became apparent in anthologies before the Web appeared, but the Web allows considerably more room for exchange. Contributions from France and Hungary, Paraguay and Eritrya don't simply make up addenda or footnotes to my anthology, but take positions as important as anything else at the site. My offering hardly represents everything that's going on in the world, but it moves more fully toward an international scope than any print anthology I know.

Criticism and commentary play an essential role in the poetry of the era: given the diversity of work and the originality of much of what interests me, it seems unlikely that all new work can be accessible to a wide range of readers without commentary. Manifestos and theoretical papers have assumed crucial positions in the 20th Century, some acting as impetus for the creation of new work as well as commentary on it. During recent years, writing of this sort has found its way more prominently into print anthologies. At Light and Dust, I favored criticism and commentary done by practicing artists, though I didn't disqualify the work of scholars and critics who do not produce works of art. This, too, is something that doesn't need to be complete by a given deadline; it's something I could add as I went along. And, again, the space for it is potentially unlimited, not something that requires a trade-off between poetry and commentary.

Perhaps the most important internal feature of a web anthology's lack of fixity is that no one is permanently and categorically excluded. This is not the case with print anthologies. Once the ink dries, whomever is excluded is cast permanently out of that particular garden. The sense of exclusion in print anthologies can create problems ranging from a poet's sense of lost opportunity to ferocious squabbling, back biting and other forms of infighting, the flattering of editors, and the generation of deep-seated and long lasting grudges. An anthology's finality can also generate lack of credibility on the part of readers. In the web environment, much of this simply disappears. If Dick and Jane aren't part of the anthology today, they may be tomorrow; the need for competition eases, and with a bit of luck, this may even lead to a greater sense of cooperation rather than one-up- manship.

This expands further in the context of the Web as a whole. Dick and Jane may very well be people who'd have to undergo something like a Damascus Road conversion to appear at my site, and probably would have to do so at about the time hell freezes over, but my site isn't the only one on the web. If you don't find them at my site, you can probably find them somewhere else using the same means you used to access Light and Dust. If links don't take you where you want to go, search engines, for all their weaknesses, may help. If Dick and Jane can't find anyone to publish them on-line, nothing's stopping them from setting up a Web site of their own. If they've been so far unrecognized, an environment like that of the Web will certainly get them at least some attention, and they may be able to build on that. However dogmatic any site may become, if it's on the web it still potentially connects to all other sites. You don't have to buy more books or check out other libraries: if you can get to Light and Dust, you can get to any other public site on the Web.

My approach to poetry is eclectic, anti-hieratic, pluralistic, and decentralized. Despite the use of the Web by totalitarian factions in attempts to establish dominance, the Web has a tendency to resist this kind of treatment. It may not always succeed, but it still provides the means for subversion of any group claiming hegemony or seeking to form an instant or pre-stacked canon. My site goes against the hegemonic grain to the extent that some people have given it such nick names as "the Resistance" and "Sweden, 1941." That's congenial to me and my way of looking at things, but it doesn't come from a desire on my part to overthrow orthodoxies in order to establish a new one in their place. I see domineering cults as toxic to the general scene, and equally harmful to individuals within the various citadels themselves. The rejection of clique putsches doesn't equal a dismissal of all those inside the various armed fortresses, and members of many of these cabals appear at Light and Dust. When presented without the imperial trappings, armies of Mooneyesque cheerleaders and draconian enforcers, the work of these people can take on a greater life on its own terms.

With this anti-dogmatic precondition in mind, I have been able to put forward work that has been ignored, marginalized, or abused. Perhaps the most dramatic examples come from projects to put works on-line that have been censored or otherwise kept out of print by force. But other work that has suffered benign neglect seems just as important. There may be a paradox or a bit of serendipity in this. I seem to be temperamentally oriented toward certain types of rebellion, confrontation, and, as some would see it, plain crankiness or contrariety. In a different milieu, this might leave me in the position of backing those who had failed by any standards, including my own. In the dispensation of the last century, however, much of the best work I know has been bashed or ignored. This makes it easy to simultaneously publish some of the best work around and some of the most abused or neglected. As important as this advocacy may be for me, it's by no means my only motivation nor does it reflect the whole show. I have been able to put up work by prominent and successful poets along with those who have been marginalized.

When I first started the Light and Dust site, I had a definite sense of the kind of work I wanted to include. Although there are plenty of rip-off sites on the web, I've sought permission from all living and most deceased writers or their publishers or their estates. I have fudged a bit on a couple author photos when I could not locate the photographers. On several occasions I have put up work by writers whom I could not locate, asking them to get in touch with me, with the understanding that I would take the work down if they so desired. Web publishers who go beyond this, into the grab-what-you-can approach, do not foster a cooperative environment, act as a severe violation of authors' rights, and dirty the scene. To me, those of us who have started early should set precedents for responsibility in the new medium. I have been able to include about 70% of the poets who most interested me by seeking permission from authors, their estates, or their publishers. I don't know if I could have done better if I had compiled a print anthology. As to plain volume of work, I have been able to publish more than I could imagine including in print in my wildest dreams. With an idea of what I wanted in the anthology, the selection process didn't involve much exclusion, but rather concentrated on obtaining permissions and working out technical problems. I have not sought submissions, have not encouraged them, and have only used two pieces that came "over the transom." The fact that I don't look for or pay much attention to unsolicited work doesn't mean that I have simply stuck to a program or filled in pre-determined slots. Much of the work in the anthology came from the editorial colleagues who have worked with me, and I discovered plenty of new work during the time I put the anthology together.

Although I edited Light and Dust with clear goals in mind, I see editing from a single point of view as, of necessity, limited - certainly too limited for an environment as complex as the milieu in which we find ourselves. As a partial means of getting around my limitations, the Light and Dust complex includes dozens of co-editors in its specialized sections, and I have at times asked third parties to make selections of work by individuals in single entries. This approach doesn't originate in the Web environment. I began moving in this direction in 1970 with several Peoples Publishing programs. Shortly after that, as Associate Editor of Margins magazine, I moved as far in this direction as I could with a series of symposiums I sponsored, each with a different editor, and each including multiple views of the subject. Distinct advantages to this approach come from properties of the Web. I can put work up in "sequesters" on-line, not linking them to any menu, but giving those involved the specific URL so that we could work together on whatever project we had in progress before it went public. Of course, after entries link to menus, the web still leaves plenty of room for revision and augmentation. I would not want to make an anthology such as this without considerable input from people whose expertise is greater than mine or whose opinions differ from my own. The degree of input varied considerably from one project to another, often depending on how much specific editors wanted to do themselves. In some instances, sections were edited as a collaborative project; in others, I stayed out of the editorial process entirely.

Making available work that is otherwise difficult to obtain has been important to me, and in the presentation of complete books on the web I have concentrated on two types: books that are now out of print, and books which have existed in manuscript but have not been previously published. With a number of the poets whose work appears at the site, I have reproduced their early books complete, and included significant examples of work done throughout their lives, providing in- depth presentation of their development through their entire opus. Differing publication strategies show work in different dimensions: one writer's work may appear in large volume, another's may appear in the context of related efforts, other's appear as brief suggestions. Each approach implies that all work presented in one manner could also be seen from a different angle: the work of any poet at the site could potentially be considered in depth, or as a sketch, or as part of a regional or genre frame of reference.

Of marginalized work in the 20th Century, the most thoroughly abused and potentially valuable has been visual poetry. Some would see this as a genre of its own. You can make a good case for that, and so some editors and practitioners should. I see it in a different context, or perhaps I should say a different set of contexts. Most art movements in the century - from the Futurisms to Language Poetry, Vorticism to the Beats, Dada to Fluxus - have first manifested themselves with a concomitant exploration of the graphic potentials of language. As they grew venal, this tendency was suppressed or relegated to a minor position or used as a form of coopting other movements. Concrete Poetry acted as a minor wing of Fluxus, and that is the type of visual poetry most familiar to the largest number of readers. But the tendency has never been captured or owned by any one movement; instead, it has run through virtually all others in one form or another. Most movements in their creative phase have sought to transcend boundaries of culture and language and to try to tap universal tonalities and promote unimpeded interchange; in this respect, the graphic nature of the work has acted as one of its primary ambassadors. Perhaps Lettrism has followed the most curious path: beginning largely in sound poetry, then branching off into a political movement, Situationism, and an aesthetic movement that focused more intently on interrelations of verbal and visual modes, it has in some ways reversed the tendencies of other movements. If Lettrism has become the most vital of the movements that have included the union of word and image, it still has never owned the tendency. The need for synthesis forms one of the grounding principals for movements in dynamic phases, and remains with those that keep their energy, while becoming suppressed in those that degenerate into fashionability or dogma.

To me, the need to integrate reaches for the roots of written language and public performance. This impulse includes a searching of the origins of art in previous ages. It also reflects the growing globalism of culture in the 20th Century. The expansion and intersection of cultures suggests the parochial nature of the English language and the Roman alphabet. A global environment needs more than a single alphabet and a single language to promote understanding and cooperation between peoples. As useful and magnificent as the Roman alphabet can be, it still cannot keep up with the complexities of the world in which we now find ourselves. One of the alphabet's great strengths, and a reason for its dominance of western culture for more than two millennia, is its simplicity and its capacity to adjust to new situations. There's no need to belittle that. In the contemporary world, however, there's no reason why it can't be integrated with other modes, visual an auditory. The web environment allows multiple configurations of media to function together, with no necessity for competition between them. When the Web became widely accessible, it made possible the inexpensive reproduction of graphics, in monochrome and in color. I would not want to try to make an anthology of any 20th Century art form that did not include visual poetry. The web made such an anthology possible. In addition, the web seems to have run something like a parallel course with visual poetry. It, too, seeks means of universal communication and a reintegration of modes of expression, and its polymath procedures run through all it carries. If visual poetry does not break out of its bounds via literary means, it may do so through the web itself. In any case, visual poetry and the web seem ideally suited to each other, both reflecting a world aching to go beyond the confines of isolated media. A problem for me with the presentation of visual poetry has been the tendency to publish or show it in separate venues, as a genre of its own. As far as I'm concerned, separate is never equal, and my approach in publishing has been to put it forward on an absolutely equal footing with other modes. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. On the web, you can take both. In writing this essay, I've tried to avoid discussion of individual entities at Light and Dust, because once I start talking about any one of them it seems to pull the others along with it. I'll make an exception here with Kaldron On-Line. For nearly two decades, the print version of Kaldron had been the world's only pluralistic and reliable venue for publishing this kind of work outside the mail art network. It's important to note the emphases in this statement: other magazines such as the Japanese Shi Shi ran longer and maintained relative stability. However, it published little besides the work of members of the Shi Shi group. Other venues put forth good work covering a wide range, but only appeared briefly or at such erratic intervals that no one could rely on them. Although Kaldron has been largely forgotten or erased in the U.S. during the 1990s, it remained the essential magazine, the main vehicle for news, for people practicing visual poetries around the world, and it retains that position in the minds of many practitioners outside the U.S. today. In the early 1990s, editor Karl Kempton contemplated turning the print magazine's editorship over to Amy Fraceschini and me. That didn't materialize in print form, but I was able to move the magazine, with Karl still acting as an editor, onto the web as the first of the Light and Dust partner sites. Nearly all the visual poetry that came in through Light and Dust is accessible from Kaldron's home page, and all visual poetry published by Kaldron can be accessed from the general Light and Dust menu. Thus anyone who wants to locate visual poetry only can go to the Kaldron page, and those who want to see it more broadly contextualized can go to the general menu or the menus of some of the other partner pages.

When I first began electronic publishing, my efforts went solely toward making work conceived in other media available on the internet. And so my efforts continued for the most part. In this respect, Light and Dust acts primarily as a distribution system rather than an exploration of art designed for the electronic environment. That was a big enough job for me. As I assembled the site, however, many people began working with properties of the web as part of the process of making art. I have not been able to pursue this direction in poetry as far as I would like, but I have been able to include the work of the two early practitioners who have made the most of the medium, and this satisfies my goal of presenting a full spectrum of the kinds of poetry produced in the later 20th Century.

*

Okay, seven years later, with over 1,000 web pages placed on-line, what does this electronic cousin of the Watts Towers add up to? Well, I've fulfilled my basic goals in presenting a survey of late 20th Century poetry and its cognates. And I've been able to present it in an egalitarian and anti-sectarian manner. I've been able to publish work on the web that I could not have afforded to do in print - considerably more than I did in some twenty five years of producing books - and been able to reach a much wider audience than I could ever hope to in any of the media known to me before the advent of the web. I've been able to do this with no resources beyond those of an average North American university student in the 1990s. I've had no support from any funding or legitimizing institution, and no backing from any clique or movement. There may be a certain amount of vanity in my pointing this out. But one of my goals goes considerably beyond this. After getting a sense of the potentials of the web, I wanted to see how far I could go with next to nothing to work with. If I can create an anthology that covers this much ground, and averages 3,200 hits a day, anybody with a modest income and a bit of determination can do likewise. Whether they set up pages simply for themselves or go for something larger, we can create an anthology which goes beyond all our limitations, and which satisfies the needs of nearly all readers.

As to the nature of the medium that carries the ideal anthology that I and other people have begun, there are all sorts of pundits ready to praise and condemn it, and legions of prophets eager to tell whoever listens where they think it's going and what it can achieve. Despite the claims made all around, this goes beyond anyone's understanding or clairvoyance. At present, for some the web lacks credibility, while others see print as superseded. I feel sure that both these positions can add up to nothing more than vaporware. Before the web became available, I used to contemplate the environments of other periods when media shifted. As things have worked out, I may have been on the "bleeding edge" of a revolutionary change in communication, or perhaps I've just been chasing flickering electrons that don't add up to much. On a personal level, the web has given me a chance to get something like a sense of what it might have been like to be a printer in the incunabula period. Despite the variations in local color, theirs was a world in which old certainties began to shake: enfranchisement and means of communication were undergoing rapid expansion, and choruses rose around the printers, proclaiming the value of their work in extending the word of God or condemning it as the work of the devil. The first printers had no way of knowing where their art would lead, but had their fingers on the pulse of radical change too large for anyone to comprehend. The web also seemed to have arrived at a time when one world order was passing, and what follows it has not taken on apparent form or direction.

In another age of transition, St. Augustine of Hippo saw the Roman empire crumbling around him, and saw a greater Rome as an eternal thought in the mind of God. It's difficult to imagine anyone apotheosizing their city in such a manner today. But in secular terms, the web as an anthology has the potential to become universal and all-encompassing, something that goes beyond our individual limitations without sacrificing our individuality in the process. It seems foolish to claim eternal presence for anything we do: in all probability, the web will change beyond recognition in less than a decade, and I doubt that my site will last very long after I'm gone. But if electronic technology follows the trajectory it's taken so far, whatever comes next will have to build on what's there now. This may include loss of some of the freedom the web enjoys at present, but its capacity for outreach can only expand, and its participatory inclusiveness can only grow. The web cannot become a single thought; but it can become universal. Following what we now know of the brain's functions, its redundancies, backup systems, and interchanges can follow the intricate and dynamic patterns of contemplation rather than conclusion. It may continue as a form of exploration rather than certainty. Poetry may fare better in such an environment than it did in the 20th Century, though it may change beyond recognition in the process.

Light and Dust in this context of constant change isn't mine: it's as much yours as anyone else's.


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Copyright 2002 by Karl Young.