Friday 20 September 2013

Poetry Library Lock-in; reading anthologies

If you’ve ever fantasised about being locked in the British Museum after dark with the Benin Bronzes and Assyrian lion hunts, or bedding down on a satellite launch-pad at the Science Museum, this could be for you…

Instead of rockets or ancient sculpture there will be poetry books.  For five Monday evenings in a row, the London Poetry Library (never open on Mondays) will allow access to explorers – for the Poetry Library Lock-in.  The five lock-in guides are all regular library users: Claire Crowther, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Daljit Nagra, James Wilkes and me.  Themes will include the library’s audio collection, and using the library for researching magazines and publishers to progress one’s own poetry publication.

This forms part of the Poetry Library’s 60th birthday celebrations.  Because it’s open 6 days a week, and always just THERE, there’s a danger that Londoners may take the library for granted.  When it closed for ages during the Festival Hall refurbishment a few years ago, I missed it so badly that I’ll probably never do so again.  The birthday’s at the end of October; a big reading will include Tom Raworth, Brenda Shaughnessy and Kei Miller.… all of whom I discovered on the library’s shelves. 

My lock-in’s the first, on Monday 30 September, when we will discuss contemporary anthologies and the paths they can set us on; also, how anthology controversies can help orientate the reader in the world of new poetry, and/or mislead... and, either way, entertain.  

The best anthologies are a library in themselves, a starting-point for new discoveries and influences.  There will be a book hunt through the shelves, for anthologies to deepen our understanding of poetry trends and inspire new work.  We will share discoveries, so my hope is that everyone goes away with new ideas and perspectives, and reading trails to pursue. 

Lorraine Mariner, who is not only an acclaimed poet but also a librarian, will be there too.  She is going to find something from the Rare Books Room to show us. 

To prepare for this, I’ve been looking at the newer items in the library’s anthology collection.  It’s very diverse, with hundreds and hundreds of titles. 

Of course there are the recent British anthologies, such as Adventures in Form (ed. Tom Chivers) and Dear World & Everyone in it (ed. Nathan Hamilton) and Ten (ed. Evaristo & Nagra).   And there are various recent American ones, including Legitimate Dangers (ed. Dumanis & Marvin) and American Hybrid (ed. Swensen & St. John).  There are the annual Best American Poetry and, more recently, Best British Poetry series, and the occasional Carcanet New Poetries. 

Then there’s poetry translated, as in Bloodaxe’s compendium of contemporary Chinese poetry, Jade Ladder (ed. Herbert & Yang Lian), and various books from the excellent Arc, often with English and original language in parallel text.  And anthologies of sonnets, eco-poetry, experimental poetry (Conductors of Chaos (ed. Iain Sinclair), now 20 years old, gets my vote for best title); of birds, science, poems by women only (good corrective for the mostly-male anthologies of the past) or by British Black and Asian poets (ditto).  There’s at least one book of women’s experimental poetry, Out of Everywhere (ed. Maggie O’Sullivan), which is one of various books I first got out of the library and then decided I wanted, so bought.  And much more.

I’m compiling a reading list with my top 30+ titles (this is very subjective), and some nice links to online anthology controversies.  The commonest name in the list is Bloodaxe – their range of anthologies is awesome, from Dear World.. and Ten to Jade Ladder.  Bloodaxe publisher Neil Astley himself is an excellent anthologist whose popularity goes far wider than poetry circles, witness Staying Alive etc.  I think he has a gift for seeking out poetry that nurtures, in a making-truth-new sort of way.   

I’ve also been reflecting on how to read anthologies... not that there’s an ideal way, but I tend to keep them by me for weeks and weeks.  If I don’t know the context, opening a new one for the first time can be like entering a trackless forest, though one that the compiler at least thinks has clear boundaries.  There has to be a certain amount of trust in the anthologist, to invest the time in his/her/their construct, artificial as it is, in the first place; and there’s a lot of establishing landmarks to do, and blazing of trees, before a mental map, whether conscious or subconscious, can be formed.  Anthology introductions can range from excellent/enlightening to misleading/annoying; I mostly prefer to read them after I’ve read some of the poems.     

Back to the Lock-in.  I’m wondering whether I can stow away in the library for the other four sessions.  Practical details (not including how to stow away) can be found here, on the Poetry School website.  There are still some places. 


  1. Dear Fiona

    I just thought that I'd congratulate you on your superb blog. There is no shortage of poetry blogs around but yours is one of the very best. It is beautifully written and touches on a host of intriguing topics. Please keep up the excellent work!

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  2. Oh... Thank you Simon! I'm not sure this blog deserves such praise, but it is very happy indeed to accept it! Very nice to get encouragement - blogging can be hard work and sometimes I wonder why I go on doing it.

    All the best