Emily Berry’s 2013 debut Dear Boy established her as a poet of ‘sinful inventiveness’ and ‘startling gifts’. As the editor of Salt Publishing’s Best British Poetry 2015 she brought her poetic skill to bear on the challenge of curating a selection of the most engaging, challenging and diverse poetry that has appeared in the last year. Ralf Webb spoke to her about the pleasures and pitfalls of this process.
[RW] The anthology gathers poems from 38 different sources, many of which are magazines and journals that publish multiple times a year. That’s a lot of literature to go through! Can you talk about your process for collating poems for this anthology? Where did you begin?
[EB] The selection process was literally a case of going through all the journals I possibly could over the year and picking out things I liked, admittedly not in a super systematic way. The poems had to be published between May 2014 and May 2015, in print and online literary journals based in the UK (or for online publications which are harder to place geographically, those which have one or more British editor), and the poets must be either based in the UK or British living abroad. I don’t know how many journals that is, but it’s a lot. So, yes, it’s quite a big undertaking! The Forward Prizes for example, whose Best Single Poem category operates on similar principles, don’t include online publications, I’m not sure why – I guess they think it would be too much work. That’s ignoring a huge section of the poetry landscape.
There’s no funding for the anthology so it’s a case of finding the journals in the Poetry Library [in the Royal Festival Hall] or in bookshops, which unfortunately means magazines that don’t make it to those places (although the Poetry Library is incredibly well stocked) and don’t have an online presence got missed out. Obviously you can’t read every single poem, it’s a bit like when you go into a clothes shop, you don’t try everything on, you just kind of feel the fabric as you pass through. Mark Ford, who edited the anthology in 2014, had a good analogy in his intro, ‘I felt more like a fish catching glimpses of other fish whose stripes or colours or speed I admired’. I got kind of obsessed with whether I been thorough enough, but the point of this anthology is that it’s one person’s take, so it’s of course a very partial survey.
You’ve held editorial roles before—such as the S/S/Y/K anthology. How does selecting poems already-in-print compare to selecting from submissions?
It felt quite different. I did this on my own, so everything was completely my choice, which is both really liberating and exciting and a bit scary, because there’s no one to cross-reference your choices with. Its one thing saying you like a poem, but then saying you think it’s one of the ‘best’ poems of the year seems like a big statement. But I decided to ignore that bit and just think to myself ‘I’m collecting together all these poems that I really like and that I think will enjoy hanging out together in a book’. The fact that all the poems had been published already is like they’ve been pre-approved, so if I had any doubts I could think, ‘Oh, well, Maurice Riordan, or whichever editor, liked this poem, so it must be good.’
In the introduction, you say that whatever else happens, you want to like the poems included in the anthology. You also talk about how ‘showing’ what you like is daunting— how others might disagree. I’m wondering how—if at all— this affected your selection process; were there any omissions, or conversely, inclusions that you were tempted to make because of that concern?
I suppose I was thinking about how much what we like is subject to and created by other people’s approval or disapproval and I’m not sure it’s possible to disentangle yourself from that completely. So I’m sure it affected the selection process but maybe not in ways I could be clear about. At one point I was worried because when I showed Roddy [Lumsden, the series editor] the long list towards the end, he commented (maybe with a hint of glee) that there were not many ‘big name’ poets on it, so then I thought, should I make an effort to include some? Because I didn’t want it to seem like I was making some kind of statement. I’m not sure what I thought would be wrong with making a statement like that.
Of course, there’s so much compressed into that term ‘liking’. Are there particular types of poem that, as a reader and editor, you find yourself drawn to? Is there a correlation between the type of poetry that you like reading and the type that you want to write?
Yes to both questions; I like so-called lyric poems, that use ‘I’ a lot (I just checked this and the vast majority of poems in the anthology are written in the first person!). I like poems about identity, that are personal, ‘confessional’—although I object to that term. Poems that are kind of weird, edgy, a bit unsettling, have a sense of humour. And I suppose those are the poems that I would hope to write as well.
The author comments collected at the back of the anthology are an interesting addition; it’s curious to see the different ways that poets use this space: some, like Amy MacCauley, almost extend an argument given in the poem, while one or two— notably Bobby Parker’s— seem to offer defences of their poems. Do you think this is a useful model, or would you have preferred the work to stand alone?
It’s funny because, as a writer, when I’ve had poems in this anthology in previous years, I didn’t like writing the note. I felt like it could do a disservice to the poem, but as a reader I really like the note. I like the very different things people do with it, the way some people make it into another poem, almost, and others are more, maybe, essayistic. Some people take it very seriously and some are a bit more flippant. I think it’s a nice extra thing, maybe it gives the anthology a bit more personality or something? I like the way the notes are introduced, it’s either ‘S/he comments, “…”’ or ‘Amy comments…’ – it sort of feels like you might be in the middle of a conversation with the poet and they’re suddenly like, ‘Oh yeah, so my poem, well, it had been a long, hot summer, and…’ I think it’s important the notes are in their own separate section at the back though, so they’re not getting all up in the poem’s face.
In the introduction you also refer to the book as a ‘special occasion’— I’m wondering about this idea of the book being a unique event: is there something about gathering the poems together in print, rather than digitally, that gives the anthology occasion?
That’s a nice idea, and maybe something physical books have over the digital, there’s that excitement of the object – but on the other hand the place that the excitement for the object mainly happens (apart from in my body when I saw the book on sale in Waterstone’s), is online, on Instagram or wherever.
I was thinking about occasion I guess because bringing a lot of people (poets/poems) together feels like a party. Some people know each other already (in fact there is a father and son in the anthology, by chance – I had no idea they were related), but maybe some people will meet new people, maybe somebody will even fall in love! I’d probably never throw an actual party because I’d get too anxious, so this is a nice alternative.
Something very striking on reading the anthology is the sheer amount of innovation and variation of poetic form on display— in particular, there are many examples (such as Jesse Darling’s ‘14 Dreams’ and Sophie Mayer’s ‘Silence, Singing’) of the increasingly blurred boundaries between poetry and prose. How is this variety of form reflected in the journals and magazines you selected from— was that variation something you had to cultivate for the anthology?
I’ve always liked ‘prose’ poetry so inevitably poems of that nature ended up in my selection. I’m not sure prose poetry would really be considered innovative these days, but then it depends who you’re asking. On the other hand the two poems you mention are not at all typical prose poems and they are taken from two journals that I would say are very open to innovative work and therefore very exciting, tender and The Wolf. I didn’t have to cultivate the variety – it’s out there! I mean, its way, way more various than in the anthology, which is subject to the limitations of my tastes.
Do you see an ‘establishment’ divide in the journals and magazines, where some of the more established ones are perhaps less willing to include a variety of forms?
To an extent yes probably––but then you get somewhere like the London Review of Books, which is obviously very ‘establishment’, but they do publish formally interesting stuff—although it tends to be by big names (and often they’re not British) like Anne Carson or Jorie Graham. Whereas the TLS would be pretty traditional. But I guess these kind of publications have a somewhat more mainstream readership to whom things that on the poetry ‘frontline’ are not considered particularly out-there might be quite perplexing—you know, with the two pieces mentioned above, I’m sure there would be plenty of people saying ‘how is this is a poem?’
Ha, exactly. Although it seems like that criticism, that prose-poem ‘is this a poem or not’ is slowly dying out. Then again, in some recent reviews of [Claudia Rankine’s] Citizen the first thing they’d write is ‘this may or may not be poetry’.
Yeah — I think that criticism may be dying out among poets, but not in general. I was recently looking at a James Tate book online that I was thinking of buying, and I was reading the reviews, and one of them said something like: ‘I love James Tate’s sense of humour, but he’s wasting it on poetry, I wish he would become a stand-up comedian’!
Recently Sandeep Parmar’s brilliant and necessary essay Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK has been sparking discussion—she says ‘The British look at the United States and abhor the actual physical violence against black citizens. We disregard our own violence done both by language and by the silence we allow’. As an editor, as a white editor, how do these issues and this discussion inform the way you work?
I’ve been following the discussions around race and literary culture in the UK over the past few years, along with the work of organisations like The Complete Works, and I’ve been learning from them. It was very important to me that the anthology be properly inclusive and representative of all the voices that are out there, not just the ones that are most audible. This was to some extent a challenge since, because the anthology’s remit is to select poems from existing publications in the UK, it was difficult to avoid replicating the disparity that is apparent there and which I certainly noticed during the reading process. There were also my own blind spots to try and acknowledge. I tried to overcome this in various ways, for example by seeking recommendations of journals that had a good track record of diversity to make sure I had thrown my net as wide as possible, and as I was going through the magazines I actively looked out for work by poets of colour (as I did for women poets) when this information was available to me.
Following on from that question of inclusion: how do issues surrounding the inclusion of women’s voices influence the way you work as an editor? You’ve mentioned in a past interview how it’s tricky to redress an imbalance of representation without problematically emphasising women’s writing as a marginalized category that ‘needs a bit of extra help’
I used to have the idea that I didn’t believe in, for example, women-only publications, and now I can’t quite remember why – I think it was because I felt it was a kind of segregation and that things should be taken on their own merits but I hadn’t got to understand that there’s no such thing as ‘own merits’ separate from all the other factors that impinge on our understanding of ‘merit’.
I am much more bothered and/or aware than I was at the time of the interview you’re talking about by the imbalances of gender, race and class in the arts. As I say, I deliberately looked out for poems by women when selecting for the anthology and I wanted to ensure the anthology was more than 50% women because I wanted to redress the balance in a small way, although this wasn’t something I really had to make an effort to do, because that’s already my frame of reference. That’s why it’s so important to make changes at the higher level, so that there are more women editors, more editors of colour, more women editors of colour! As Sandeep points out in her essay, at the moment in the UK most poetry editors at publishing houses, and most editors of poetry magazines, are white men, so it’s not at all surprising that the landscape looks how it looks.
There was a piece in Electric Literature’s The Blunt Instrument column published over the summer, written by Elisa Gabbert, where she says that white men ought work to solve the problem of imbalance, instead of putting it onto women, POC, and LGBTQ to fix it themselves: Gabbert impels white men to submit less and pitch less. Do you see this as a less problematic way to redress—or to begin to redress— that imbalance?
I just imagine the types of white men who would follow this suggestion and think ‘Okay, I’ll step back’ are really the ones that are not taking up much space in the first place. Like, I highly doubt Jonathan Franzen’s going to hold off submitting his latest piece to the New Yorker and if he did, who’s to say that the editors wouldn’t fill the slot with another writer from his same demographic? I feel like you’d need a critical mass of white male writers to take this up in order for enough space to be created, I guess it’s a bit of a utopian vision. I agree it’s important for private individuals to realise that the onus is on them as much as on editors and publishing houses etc, though I don’t think you can get away from the fact that the latter have a lot of responsibility and if they are getting too many submissions from white men and not enough from women and writers of colour, then they need to find ways of deterring one and encouraging the other. You know, like putting Vaseline on a birdfeeder so when a squirrel comes along he just slides right off it.
After editing this anthology do you see things that British poetry does particularly well, or things that it’s struggling to do? How do you see contemporary British poetry comparing with American, or Canadian poetry?
This is a hard question! I think maybe the differences are becoming more blurred because so many British poets are influenced by American poetry and indeed by American culture generally. I think this could probably be best observed by someone at a greater distance, and actually I suspect editing an anthology makes you kind of myopic, rather than the opposite. I can only speak in terms of the poetry in the book, there I see a piss-taking element that seems very British and perhaps I don’t encounter that so much in North American poetry. The humour is often self-deprecating. I can’t imagine finding the line ‘I will meet you on the sacred mound / got an amulet and a rotisserie chicken’ (from Tom Jenks’s poem ‘Spruce’) in an American poem! There’s a sort of continual movement between hysteria and bathos. But that might just be me.
Interview by Ralf Webb
Emily Berry’s debut poetry collection Dear Boy (Faber & Faber, 2013) won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Hawthornden Prize. She is a contributor to The Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury, 2013), a compendium of breakfasts. She is currently working towards a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia.
The Best British Poetry 2015 is published by Salt and is available from bookshops and online retailers.