Anthologizing; standards of selection

I’ve been working on my anthology project for over a year. It’s of poems by Latin American women writers – well, Spanish America – and is focused on work published between 1880 and 1930. My goal is to give a fair representation of what was being published by women in that era. I’ve done a lot of research! And I could spend years expanding this project; it’s fascinating and there is a ton of material. To do this project right, I would need to go spend a couple of months in various big libraries. I’d like to visit the Benson Latin American collection in Austin; I’m familiar with it because I used to work in that library system. I’d like to go to big libraries in Buenos Aires and Uruguay and Cuba and Guatemala, to look at copies of women’s magazines and other literary magazines from the turn of the century.

For now, I have quite a lot to work with. I have good work from about 40 or 50 poets, and many more I haven’t yet been able to judge. I’ve translated a smaller core group of 21 poets, made short bios for them, and compiled lists of their work, where I could find that information. Most of these poets are not well known. You have your famous ones in roughly this order:

- Gabriela Mistral (Won the Nobel Prize)
- Delmira Agustini
- Alejandra Storni

I’d say that’s it for the “known” writers that you would expect from an academic who is a latin americanist, or is from Latin America. Storni, especially, was hip recently. And a few poets in the U.S. will have read selected translations of Mistral. Usually the dippiest and stupidest of her poems.

Beyond that, people seem to know Juana de Ibarbourou; Salome Ureña, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Correct me if I’m wrong! The other writers are either little-known even to most literary people, or they’re known (or known of) by people from their own countries. This is not surprising; academia rewards specialization. People tend to become experts in a particular time, place or “literary movement”; even so narrow as to study a particular writer. The mindset of the ambitious anthologist must be quite different.

I find most of my “unknown” women poets only in anthologies that are country-specific, and often only in old anthologies from 1930. There is a certain sentimentality attached to them, as they might have been poems memorized in grade school for recitation…. again, the poems best known are not the best poems.

So what do I mean by “the best poems”? On some level, I have an absolute artistic standard, a very traditional “golden bookshelf” one, that I’m judging by. It’s elitist and snobby. I like density of language and meaning, a “leaping” quality, and intertextuality. I like a surprise. I value poems that are exciting to me as a poet – and value them over poems that might be more exciting to a general audience. This kind of discernment is good to have, but it can also be a liability or an obstacle to interpretive vision and judgement; it can be blatantly classist; it’s like wearing blinders. Steeping myself in non-elite traditions gives me other standards to judge by; like with literary genre, you can’t judge one sort of thing by the standards of another. In other words, I believe that literary critics, anthologizers, and teachers have to get over that sense, or not be limited by it.

On another level, I want to find “what’s interesting to people now” including anything that I think will be unexpected. If I see (and I do) that “latin american women’s writing” is being marketed in the U.S. as having a certain kind of eroticism, then I want to find poems that are metaphysical and abstract. When I read prefaces to other anthologies that say that women mostly write love poetry that’s overly sentimental and twee, and that men’s poetry is more important because it’s political, then I want to find some political poems by women. Whenever I make up my mind to look for something that I’ve read doesn’t exist, frankly, I’ve found it! That is very satisfying to my notions of feminism.

Overt feminist content often interests me in a poem, so while Adela Zamudio’s “Nacer Hombre” doesn’t make my snooty elitist filter, it is boldly feminist. It has also been an extremely famous poem for over 100 years. That alone gives it historical interest. And when I show it to people, they tend to respond with surprise and pleasure that such a poem was written at all in 1887:

Cuánto trabajo ella pasa
Por corregir la torpeza
De su esposo, y en la casa,
( Permitidme que me asombre).
Tan inepto como fatuo,
Sigue él siendo la cabeza,
Porque es hombre!

Actually, these sentiments were not so rare as people think. It is a sad symptom of the state of history, and of feminist history, that it should be so surprising.

I look for works that are representative of a particular kind of writing. Here’s a perfect example: Emma Vargas Flórez de Arguelles, born in 1885 in Colombia. I found a few of her poems in an old anthology of Colombian women poets. She never published a book, but had poetry in magazines and newspapers and was part of a family of poets. That’s all I know about her. If I could go to Colombia, or if I spent a week digging, I’m sure I’d find more about her life and more of her work. The poem I am including in the anthology is called “Manos femeniles.” It’s totally barfy. I’ll give you some of my English translation:

Professional hands that instead of a needle
take up the pen, driven by longing,
and instead of embroidery, shape verses;
you’re the busy secretaries of the soul,
that in happy times, peaceful, create
harmonious verses from honey and vinegar.

It gets worse. Lilies, mothers, children, Christ, butterflies, shy maidens, fragility, embroidery, stars, pearls, honor, and “holy obedience” all make cameo appearances and one is slightly tempted to think of the word “doggerel”. But then I think back to Longfellow and Tennyson, who are just as barfy and doggerel-prone and yet who are still judged to be “good” though out of fashion. If they were women they would disappear into the mists. How unfair! And Emma Vargas actually fits the stereotype of “women’s verses” that make people roll their eyes. Shouldn’t we actually take a long hard look at such poems before we judge them?

Indeed when I look deeper at “Manos femeniles”, it’s got something going on. I realize now, from reading a lot of poems like this, that there’s something similar to the U.S. women’s temperance movement going on; that Vargas is part of the feminism that thought of women as essentially holy and better than men; the famous “angel in the house”. The poem addresses famous men directly, challenging them to think of women poets as interpreters of a sort of fragile women’s dream-world, as if women are more directly in touch with the land of fantasy and imagination than men can be. In a modernist aesthetic, this is like saying that men can’t be good poets! They’re too sullied by gross impurity of the world and of just being men, apparently. Men sin a lot, and have battles and make a lot of noise. Women care for the wounded and for children, and are Christlike, while also sort of magically channelling poet-energy from the stars, from flowers, jewels, and from, you know… modernist fairyland. Then she winds up the poem with a rousing call to sisterly action:

Women of America, sisters of dreams,
for new songs, our hands together all
shall weave a laurel wreath,
and – united – we’ll add from our gardens
fresh violets, exotic jasmine,
leafy lilies, red carnation!

You have to admit that’s kind of cool! And while by my absolutist golden-bookshelf standards, I would sneer at it if it were written last year and read at a poetry slam, when I picture it in the context of its time, it’s interestingly radical.

This is getting to be a very long post. I will continue tomorrow.

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