The Best of the Best…or Not?

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with the Maori poet and scholar, Alice Te Punga Somerville. Alice was born and raised in Aotearoa, New Zealand and she is currently a visiting Professor of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto. I have been studying poetry from the Pacific in my Twenty-First Century Poetry class with Professor and Poet, Lesley Wheeler, so it was exciting to meet a real poet from this portion of the globe.

In her lecture, Alice Te Punga Somerville mainly talked about the current condition of New Zealand poetry. Over the past decade, Bill Manhire and Damien Wilkins have compiled annual online collections of the Best New Zealand Poetry. Recently, they published The Best of the Best New Zealand Poetry, which contains what these individuals considered to be the absolute best from the past years online collections. Somerville pointed out that in both of these anthologies there was a disturbingly small number of Maori and Pasifika poets included. Although Manhire claims that this was because there are not very many Maori and Pasifika poets; this does not make sense because there are almost 80 such poets featured in Mauri Ola, which is an anthology of contemporary Polynesian poems published in 2010. The lack of Maori and Pasifika poets included in these collections results in a sort of chain reaction. Manhire, who is the first poet laureate of New Zealand, and Wilkins both exert a lot of influence on who gains admittance to MFA programs and who ultimately gets published.

This information made me wonder what minorities are not being represented in American poetry anthologies, or Canadian or even Spanish anthologies? This question relates to several issues that we have previously discussed on the Snopes blog. For instance, the Tucson book ban and The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, are both connected to this question.

What are your thoughts? Do you believe that it is the editor’s duty to feature minorities in a national collection? Why or why not?

Check out the R.T. Smith’s past posts “Buried Antipathies: The Dove Anthology, Second Wind” and “Top Ten Reasons for Banning Books by Ethnic Minorities” for more information.


About Lauren Starnes

Senior at Washington and Lee University. Originally from Chattanooga, TN. Majoring in English.

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One Response to The Best of the Best…or Not?

  1. On the way to the airport, Alice and I talked about how anthologies of contemporary work may purport to be representative and/or to showcase the very best from a given field, however that’s defined. Mostly, though, what they do is represent or showcase a particular network. An anthology of poems about druids is, most likely, an anthology of poems about druids by people in the editor’s circle of acquaintance, including the acquaintances of friends and colleagues. There might be public calls for druid poems, but the ads probably appear in venues that in some way mirror the editor’s network–what he or she likes, is aware of, feels comfortable with. To some degree that’s just inevitable. No one’s read everything. Or we dismiss poems because we’re not critical of our aesthetic prejudices, maybe learning later that we stupidly missed something beautiful. It’s always an editor’s responsibility, though, to interrogate his or her own networks and tastes. If you haven’t really probed the mistletoe for unfamiliar, unlikely druid poems by people unlike you, then you’re undermining the ultimate value of all your editorial labors.

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