As Norton is pushing its new edition of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry, it may be that the press’s 2009 anthology, American Hybrid, is vanishing into history. But this anthology–Cole Swensen and David St. John’s hypothesis of a contemporary lyric existing between “traditional” and “experimental” poetries–is still in the air. Contemporary big-press/big-prize American poetry is gravitating toward its own conception of “hybrid” poetry, a learned, skeptical poetic voice that steers carefully between James Merrill (in his virtuoso word-painting mode) and John Ashbery (in a fairly normy post-Stevens reading of that poet). This is a “hybrid” project if there ever was one–I think of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections and Adam Fitzgerald’s The Late Parade as exemplars–and it suggests to me that this now almost-old-fashioned-feeling idea (whose “traditional”? whose “experimental”?) is still alive. With that in mind, I thought I’d repost a review of American Hybrid I co-wrote with the delightful and serious Michael Theune for Pleiades 30.2 (2010).
American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry anthologizes work that situates itself in the middle space formed by what is often conceived of as, as editor Cole Swensen calls it in her introduction to the anthology, the longstanding “fundamental division” in twentieth-century American poetry. Formulated in a variety of ways (Romantic vs. Modern; New Formal vs. Language), this division typically comes down to a divide between more mainstream, traditional poetries and more avant-garde, radically experimental poetries in what Swensen calls “the two-camp model.” According to Swensen, the poetry in American Hybrid is new insofar as it hybridizes “core attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unprecedented ways.” Swensen notes,
The hybrid poem has selectively inherited traits from both of the principal paths… Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with “conventional” work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of “experimental” works, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools, each one of which can change dramatically depending on how it is combined with others and the particular role it plays in the composition.
American Hybrid brings together the work of 74 contemporary poets whom the editors believe have been doing such hybrid work, presenting each poet with a brief statement about their work, a paragraph of professional biography, and a sampling of approximately six pages of poems. According to St. John’s introduction, all of the poets included in the anthology had three books published when reading for the anthology began in summer, 2005. Many of the anthologized poets are well-known, including Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Mary Jo Bang, Norman Dubie, Alice Fulton, James Galvin, Forrest Gander, Albert Goldbarth, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Ann Lauterbach, Harryette Mullen, Michael Palmer, D. A. Powell, Bin Ramke, Claudia Rankine, Donald Revell, Rosemarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, C. D. Wright, Charles Wright, and Dean Young. But American Hybrid also includes some relatively younger poets and/or lesser-known poets such as Joshua Beckman, Molly Bendall, Killarney Clary, Martin Corless-Smith, Andrew Joron, Myung Mi Kim, Stefanie Marlis, Jane Miller, Jennifer Moxley, Rod Smith, Dara Wier, and Elizabeth Willis.
The following conversation took place via e-mail during the fall and winter of 2009-2010.