Local Anthologies Take Root Growing Up
When true poetry anthologies of linked pieces emerge, they're often tied together by a specific tether of time and place. Some scenes, the most obvious being San Francisco in the Beat era, have some shared stylistic traits, while others support a more diverse, disparate body of work. Some time-place anthologies acheive a set definition of a scene; others merely gather the nebulous clouds of a scene between two covers.
In the last three months, three Austin-based anthologies have been released, and by the end of next month, two others will be out. There are marked differences between the compiled works. Three are printed, while two are spoken works on cassettes. Two of the works are funded through public monies, while the other three are do-it-yourself affairs reliant on volunteer work and heavy input from the local poetry community. And none, taken by themselves, fully illustrates what's happening among Austin's poets today. But together, the works chronicle many of the poets growing in and benefiting from Austin's literate populace, its large number of open mike readings, and the supportive network of poetry writers and lovers.
The Poesia y Calle anthology, lovingly choreographed by local poet Sue Littleton, came out in May, and is arguably the most multi-cultural and attractive of the recent flurry of anthologies. Littleton brings an engaging personal touch to the work, prefacing the pieces with respectful, informed, and intimate introductions discussing each poet's perspective and/or distincitive qualities. Furthermore, Littleton made a special effort to include Austin writers from different ethnic backgrounds, and the Poesia y Calle anthology is the only one of the five to include works in Spanish with English translation.
The anthology is an outgrowth of the Poesia y Calle reading series at downtown Austin's Mexic-Arte Museum. Poet and then-St. Edward's University Spanish and Spanish Literature professor Nestor Lugones, who took over the Mexic-Arte reading series in 1989, wanted a printed anthology to be part of the reading series' mission.
Littleton met Lugones, who now teaches at Southwest Texas State University, through his classes at St. Edward's in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Lugones helped inspire Littleton to break a 10-year hiatus from writing poetry and participating in readings. She's been involved with Mexic-Arte ever since, helping with the first anthology, released in 1993, and taking a major role in editing and planning the second anthology.
This latest anthology, with its immaculate layout, eye-catching photos, and book-grade cover and paper, looks expensive - and it was. Although it was financed in part by a matching grant from the city, Littleton, who also works as a legal secretary, financed much of the $3,000 project herself. There is a third anthology in the planning stages, but because Mexic-Arte must provide a higher percentage of its grant each year, Littleton thinks the next anthology will be the last Mexic-Arte will be able to support.
The other recent, publicly funded anthology, the Word in the Haus cassette, is, in essence, a best-of collection from Brett Holloway-Reeves and Tom Dowe's weekly Coffeehaus poetry show on KVRX-FM. The show, started two years ago by the station, has been an outlet for both established and emerging local poets to read and be heard.
"There were two ideas behind the tape," Holloway-Reeves said. "The first and obvious thing was to put out a sample of Austin poetry. But also, it was a way to promote the show. Every show we do is an anthology in a way. If you have an open mike where 30 or 40 people show up, it's a good turnout. We're easily reaching 200 to 400 with the show, even if they're only tuning in for 15 or 20 minutes."
The cassette, released in May, is a smart, well-flowing collection of works from 12 poets, includes pieces taken directly from radio tapes, which allows some of the flavor of the show to seep through. Holloway-Reeves often plays songs with interesting lyrics to break up the row of voices; here, a song by local band the Resonators is included. Some intros and banter between Holloway-Reeves and the poets are left intact. Mike Henry explains the genesis of his piece "How I Go" - a piece of graffiti in the Texas Showdown Saloon that read "Religion won't get you dates" - and Holloway-Reeves prefaces Marion Winik's superlative "On the Road and Off" by revealing she writes erotica under a pen name for Penthouse magazine.
The money for the tape came through KVRX's budget, which filters down from Texas Student Publications at the University of Texas. A good percentage of the tapes have been slated for giveaway to help promote the show. "It makes a big difference that we don't have to turn a profit," Holloway-Reeves said. "If we break even, we love you, and if not, fine." Acknowledging probable cuts to the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, of which he speaks derisively, Holloway-Reeves points out, "We don't have any confidence that we could have done this without community and financial support."
Holloway-Reeves adds that with cassette compilations, special attention must be paid to how pieces fit together. "With a book, you can go backwards and forwards pretty easily," he says, "whereas a tape is a line running through a spool."
The Austin International Poetry Festival compilation, released last month, was
arguably more of a challenge than the Coffehaus anthology. KOOP cultural arts
director James Welsh, in anthologizing the 90-minute cassette released last
month, sifted through
24 hours of performances he archived at Mexic-Arte from this last spring's festival.
"Basically, it was a struggle against poetry-saturation syndrome," Welsh laughs. "I would put tapes on and putt around the house, doing dishes, taking baths, and making notes on what really caught my ear. I wanted to represent a diverse cross section - not only with respect to ethnicity, religion and gender, but also to tone, theme, and style. I also looked for things that perked my ears up, in terms of hard-hitting or beautiful works."
Because of Welsh's own inclination toward marrying poetry and music - he has played in local poetry/music groups Glosso Babel and Tammy Gomez con La Palabra - a number of the selections that caught his ear are backed by music.
Technically, the Festival tape isn't a strictly local collection. British poet
John Row is
featured three times, and a good number of the poets featured hail from a number of other cities, as close as Houston and as far away as Seattle and Cincinnati. The tape particularly benefits local performers like Wammo who are more inclined toward performance poetry. The nuances of voice, pacing, and intensity are sometimes hard to gain from the page, but with a tape, there's not so much room for ambiguity.
But Festival organizers are planning a printed archive as well as the tape. Mañana editor Sonya Feher is assembling an anthology derived from works that poets typed into an on-site computer at the Festival. The collection, which will probably be released next month, will be laid out with little, if any, editorial input - the work will be more like a scrapbook than a literary magazine.
Another anthology due next month,Incongruous on Congress, will be even more literally like a scrapbook. Editors Neil Meili and Thom the World Poet, who are organizing the anthology around the reading series at Cafe Solaire, are taking one-page poems laid out by each contributing poet and assembling them into an 8 1/2" x 11", photocopied publication. In their call for poems, they requested that the poem be accompanied by a bio and photo. Some of the poets have employed fine graphics and high-powered desktop publishing computer programs; others have opted for the more Spartan cut-and-paste method.
Meili, an accomplished "cowboy poet" who has been involved in the Austin poetry scene since 1992, got the idea for the title, and the anthology, while reading at Solaire. "I was up there, in a cowboy hat, Birkenstocks, and cargo shorts, reading Zen poetry, and thinking, `This is somewhat incongruous.'" Thinking about how diverse the Solaire poets were, and how accepting the Solaire community was of those differences, led Meili to propose the idea.
"I think doing it this way really honors the incongruities of Solaire," Meili said. "There's a purity of the primitive the way we're doing this. In selecting the order of works, we'll obviously put A before B, but we're not going to edit the work."
Meili will pay for production costs out of his own pocket, with all profits from sales going to next year's Austin International Poetry Festival. "This is something I want to do. I choose my charities. The Rainbow Warrior is a good cause, and so is poetry in Austin."
Most observers of Austin poetry will agree that there's been progress made over the last few years, both in the quantity of poets and the quality of their work. Although the convergence of anthologies in the last few months is somewhat coincidental, it also seems to be part of a community effort to seek some sort of self-definition. There's talk of other anthologies to follow these five - Garland Thompson is working on a possible CD release of works from the '95 Poetry Festival, and Mike Henry has been taping readings for a CD of Austin poets, which may be released by a local record label next spring. Even those observers who want to see the scene go farther recognize the importance of the anthologies in forging an identity.
"This might get me in trouble," Holloway-Reeves begins, "but I feel like Austin's poetry scene is in its adolescence right now. A lot of the work is charming and energetic, and it's exciting in the way adolescence is. But what's going to make the difference is a more complex way of expressing ourselves."
"The historical markers we look at in poetry are those times where things have been spoken in a new and definitive way," Holloway-Reeves said. "I don't think any of us, including myself, has done that yet. I think we're starting to figure out ways of defining ourselves, and I really hope it's going to happen. Through the anthologies and hearing each other read, I think we are learning from one another."
Adolescence, after all, is a time for self-discovery and self-definition. Through the anthologies, Austin poets have given themselves a sort of map - not only showing them where they are right now, but where they can go from here. n
On Friday, August 11 at 7pm, Sue Littleton and three of the other recently anthologized poets will read works by the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda at Book People.