David Lehman: was Lionel Trilling’s graduate assistant at Columbia University
Editor: David Lehman was born in New York City in 1948. He graduated from Columbia College in 1970 and attended Cambridge University from 1970 to 1972. He received a doctorate at Columbia University, where he was Lionel Trilling’s graduate assistant. He is the author of three books of poems, including Valentine Place (Scribner, 1996). His prose books include Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, The Big Question, and The Perfect Murder (a book anyone interested in mysteries should own). He was recently named general editor of the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry series (Donald Hall formerly held this position) and is on the core faculty of the graduate writing program at Bennington College. He also teaches at Columbia and the New School for Social Research. He lives in Ithaca, New York, and New York City, and is currently at work on a book about the New York School of poets and painters.
The Best American Poetry 1996; series editor, David Lehman; 1996’s editor, Adrienne Rich; Scribner, 1996; $13 paper, $27.50, cloth; 318 pages
Now in its ninth year, The Best American Poetry 1996 annually presents 75 new poems chosen by the series’ guest editor as his or her favorites of the previous year. Rich writes, about this year’s choices: “I wanted poems from 1995 that were more durable and daring than ever — not drawn from the headlines but able to resist the headlines and the shattering of morale behind them.” Rich has brought together poems by more women, African American, Asian American, Native American, Latino, and gay and lesbian poets than in any of the previous volumes. (Local poets Marilyn Chin and Luis Urrea are in this volume.)
On the morning we talked, I asked Mr. Lehman how he happened to start the series.
“I had the idea in 1987. Ihad just moved to the house in Ithaca where I am now sitting. I was driving back to the old rental to pick up houseplants. On the way over it occurred to me there wasn’t a yearly ‘best of’ book devoted to American poetry, although there were such books devoted to short stories and essays. 1 thought there was plenty of poetry of high quality and eclectic range that would justify such a volume.
“I always thought it was good luck that 1 had this idea the day after I moved into my house. The coincidence could not be written off — starting fresh and having a wonderful idea at the same time. We — my agent and I — had a dickens of a time interesting a publisher, because most publishers feel poetry is a losing proposition, financially. An editor at Scribner signed it, but not with great expectations. They thought they would be lucky to sell 5000 copies. But that first 1988 book went back to press three times and suddenly, we were in business.”
And how did he happen to come up with the idea of having guest editors? (These have been John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck, A.R. Ammons, and Richard Howard.)
“1 felt that I could serve as the series’ editor and provide continuity, a constant. I would be there year after year. A guest editor would be the variant, so the volumes would be different, one from another. The series would also be a record of the tastes of our leading poets. John Ashbery will have a different view of what the best poetry is from Adrienne Rich, and both will differ from Louise Gluck. In this way people who are interested in Ashbery will be interested in that volume in particular. People interested in A.R. Ammons will be interested in that volume. So there is an extra dimension to the series: it also chronicles the taste of our best poets.
“I want the books to have a lot to commend them beyond the poems themselves. The 75 poems are of course the center of the book, but we want also to have a foreword by me that can provide a context, that gives an idea of what happened in poetry this year, and an essay in which the guest editor propounds his or her criteria. We want a very rich apparatus in the back of the book where the poets have biographical sketches and talk about their poems. We also provide a list of magazines from which the poems were chosen. If you like what you’ve read that’s appeared in the Green Mountains Review or Boulevard, you can subscribe or you can submit your poems to that magazine. We hope that the book will serve a kind of Writer’s Digest or Literary Marketplace function for a poet.”
What did the guest editors read to make their choices?
“We get complimentary subscriptions to as many publications as we can for the guest editors. In addition, I read voluminously and pick out things that I like or think that the editor will like and send off packets at regular intervals. We try to be ecumenical and to include works across the board from all movements and regions. More than three dozen magazines are represented in the 1996 volume. American poetry is often regarded as a faction-ridden, conflict-filled arena, and it was my sense years ago and still my sense today that poems from diverse directions can coexist to their mutual enhancement in a single volume. I believe that truly.”