This past week I’ve been circling the question of anthologies. What are their potentials? Their limitations? Their ethics? Reading What I Say, I’ve been trying to suss out what exactly it is doing. Is it building a canon? Is it (purposefully or not) attempting to define a (or the) “Black Aesthetic”? Or, using Evie Shockley’s formulation in “Renegade poetics,” is it aiming to present a variety of “black aesthetics” by looking at the work of many poets either “identifying or being interpolated as ‘black’ in the U.S.”? How does my approach to reading What I Say impact/interact with the editors’ intentions? Though I don’t have a definitive answer (and I doubt there is one), here are some things I’ve been considering.
In thinking about What I Say, I’ve been revisiting Jen Hofer’s Sin puertas visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women, published in 2003. Jen is, among other things, a poet, a translator, a language activist, a professor and a knitter. Her anthology, of course, exists in a context distinct from What I Say. It focuses on poets writing in Mexico, and specifically poets who are women. In other words, it centers gender and nationality rather than race and nationality. That said, like What I Say, Sin puertas visibles considers “how those historically and currently excluded from official cultural spheres respond artistically to that exclusion.” (S.p.v., 5). What, though, does Jen’s anthology do? Does it problematically “canonize the marginal” like C.S. Giscome discusses in the intro to What I Say? If it does not, what does it do instead?
As Jen states in her introductory “Pre-texts,” “It is my hope, then, that rather than serving to delineate the false and flimsy borders of a nation called ‘Mexican women’s poetry,’ this book will provide multiple vantage points from which to explore how some women choose at this moment to engage poetic practice in Mexico, while simultaneously serving to question the very impulse toward literary nationalism and gender essentialism which would desire such delineation.” (S.p.v., 6). In other words, she actively rejects any move to “canonize” and instead opts to create a work that “diffracts” rather than “delimits”—a work that “frames to provide a view, a way to look out” rather than “frames to contain.”(S.p.v., 3). In this way, Sin puertas visibles suggests a view that is “not panoramic, not definitive, not generalizing, but rather periscopic and pivoting and particular,” (S.p.v. 3).
All of this seems great to me. Here is an anthology that is trying to set itself up as a trampoline rather than a landing pad. An anthology that interrogates the very categories it uses to organize itself. But, the question I’m left with is, what is the reader’s role in all of this? What are the risks of reading an anthology like Sin puertas visibles (or What I Say) as a canon-building work? Even if the editors of an anthology aim for a “periscopic” rather than a “panoramic” view, can we, as readers, still fall into a “delimited” rather than a “diffracted” reading that leads us to essentialize race, gender, etc.? Or, on an optimistic note, can we purposely (and productively) “misread” canon-building anthologies like Norton’s in order to treat them as windows rather than containers? In a word, as a reader, what can I do (tangibly, and concretely) to treat anthologies as trampolines?