Karl Young: 'Toward an Ideal Anthology,' Part One

reprinted here, in memoriam

[Karl Young’s relation to independent and alternative publishing began in 1966 with his first publications produced on mimeo machines and with letterpresses. In 1970 he presented new and experimental work under the imprint of Membrane Press, working both as a professional printer and the creator of a range of innovative, nearly sculptural books of his own. His editioned books were produced on an offset press as part of a series of cottage industries he worked with until the late 1980s in Milwaukee. In 1990, without access to a press of his own, he continued doing a few titles by other means, and made his first forays onto the internet using FTP and other now arcane and limited methods available at the time. When web publication became affordable in 1994, he started using it. His web anthology Light & Dust is the online successor to Membrane and as such has brought a still wider and more international range of work into general circulation. What follows here is the first part of a discussion by Young of anthologies in general and web anthologies in particular done in 2002, halfway between the time he began the online anthology and the present. The entire piece can be accessed here, by a pathway that can lead the reader to other useful and often hard to obtain works, generously and conscientiously delivered. The second part of this insightful work will appear subsequently on Poems and Poetics. (J.R.)]   

Etymologically, the word “anthology” means a bundle of flowers. During the late medieval period, monks made collections of favorite texts for their own use or for members of their orders. Private collections offer satisfactions, as you can see among people who collect stamps or coins or, well, you name it and you can find somebody who collects whatever you’ve named. Anthropologists speak of “hunter-gatherer” societies, and it’s easy enough to see hunting and gathering as among the most basic human characteristics and impulses. When keeping private collections does no harm, it’s not something to dismiss or look down upon. However, most people who make personal collections want to share them. Last Christmas I received a CD and an audio tape of seasonal music from friends who initially put them together for their own use, then made additional copies as gifts. That I received two such collections from people who didn’t know each other, suggests how many people turn such collections into presents. No matter how dogmatic anthologies can get, the sense of gift is usually there somewhere.

The sense of a gift seems an admirable editorial concept, and one that should not get lost no matter how anthologies change through time. Gifts often include hopes. Of course, gifts can act simply as bribes or as a means of coercing, conning, or appeasing people. Yet the hopes in gifts can even grow considerably from this simple form of transaction. A gift given in courtship, for instance, may include hopes for relatively quick and selfish gratification, but that doesn’t necessarily exclude hopes for cooperation and shared happiness over extended periods of time.

Some of the most important anthologies published in recent centuries have acted as news vehicles. This is not out of keeping with the courtship theme: if you’re in love, you want to tell the world. Aside from amorous enthusiasm, real news is hard to keep to yourself. If you’ve found something important, you’ll probably want to tell people about it. Even as I write the beginning of this essay, there are a number of people I feel impatient to show it to.

News tends to stimulate a prescriptive impulse. Anthologies based in news may begin with the implication that this is something you gotta see to believe, but it will also tend to bring with it the implication that this is what people should read. Likewise, controversial news acts as a stimulant for debate and news of an atrocity asks people to seek a remedy. Remedial anthologies can act as advocates for groups of people or types of work that have previously been disenfranchised or excluded. Just as easily, they can move in such a way as to negate what some would see as news. Easily identifiable examples of these directions can be found in collections of work by minorities and of work meant to reestablish traditional forms and values.

The interrelation of inclusion and exclusion forms one of the basic dynamics of the process of anthology formation. In a simple collection of flowers, gatherers select the plants that they think look or smell best or carry the right kind of symbolism. The gatherers may find plants that might or might not be appropriate, and spend considerable time deciding on which to keep and which to exclude. This tension can become a dynamic force in the reading of anthologies as well as in their assembly. Readers who seek what may have been left out become ideal readers and extenders of the news in anthologies. As anthologies and the environment in which they function become more complex, exclusion becomes more important and can take on a negative role. This can grow from the problems any editor finds in work that may or may not fit the anthology’s purposes. At times, some anthologists work primarily from the need to exclude what they dislike rather than what they wish to keep. Anthologies can thus become tools for something like excommunication just as easily as they can act as vehicles for enfranchisement.

Combining most of these elements, polemical anthologies can act as much as stimulants for new work as surveys of what has been done. Manifestos became something of an art form in themselves in the twentieth century. Perhaps the most enduring manifestos may not be those limited to a single rhetorical voice, but those which appeared as choruses in the form of anthologies.

No matter how complex the impulse to anthologize becomes, it almost invariably includes these elements, and to the editors, they become a means of trying to make the environment in which they operate better than it was before.


I saw my initial efforts at electronic publishing in a limited and tentative context. The first works I put online were anarchist classics and a few poems, in the days when ftp, gopher, and bbs were the main means of electronic distribution. When the World Wide Web opened up to general use, it became clear to me that this would be as good an environment as I could find for creating an anthology of the poetry of the later decades of the twentieth century. Following nearly all the lines of collection mentioned above, I set about trying to represent as close to all the genres and tendencies of poetry produced during the era in what gets called “experimental” or “Avant Garde” modes.

Several factors came from characteristics of the web itself. First, its nature made it open-ended in ways that print anthologies are not. The ink never dries on the web. The most immediately gratifying aspect of this comes to a print publisher from the fact that it allows you to correct typos. I’m not sure how much people not involved in print publishing understand how much misery these little fleas or heartaches or pestilences can inflict on a printer-publisher, or how they add up over the years. I didn’t know it when I started on the web, but in the electronic environment typos became less of a problem: readers take them more or less for granted, and since they can always be corrected they weigh less heavily on the publisher’s psyche. Thus the web provides liberation from an unwanted kind of permanence in two ways at once.

Lack of fixity fans out from there. Authors can revise and add to work that they publish online. Unlike a print anthology, the editor doesn't have to allot a certain amount of space to each contributor or each work. In some instances, charges for disk space can become expensive, but at least in its potential, web space is virtually unlimited. Going by author, if the work of X seems to require several hundred pages to make its point, the editor can include that much. You don’t have to assign each contributor a limited number of pages, or use volume as a qualitative signifier in which the more prestigious authors get more than those assigned a lower status. Volume as an indicator of status disappears along with the worries about how to apportion limited space.

On the web, which acts as a world wide distribution system in a literal sense, there’s no reason why you can’t present work in multiple languages, and you can add translations as you go along, not requiring them to be on-hand by a specific deadline. If the presence of work on the web finds translators among readers, as it has done a number of times at Light and Dust, so much the better. Like most editors, I know more about what’s going on in my own part of the world than anywhere else. But the global environment of the web allows considerable outreach beyond that. The tendency toward expanded areas of possibility became apparent in anthologies before the web appeared, but the web allows considerably more room for exchange. Contributions from France and Hungary, Paraguay and Eritrya don’t simply make up addenda or footnotes to my anthology, but take positions as important as anything else at the site. My offering hardly represents everything that’s going on in the world, but it moves more fully toward an international scope than any print anthology I know.

Criticism and commentary play an essential role in the poetry of the era: given the diversity of work and the originality of much of what interests me, it seems unlikely that all new work can be accessible to a wide range of readers without commentary. Manifestos and theoretical papers have assumed crucial positions in the twentieth century, some acting as impetus for the creation of new work as well as commentary on it. During recent years, writing of this sort has found its way more prominently into print anthologies. At Light and Dust, I favored criticism and commentary done by practicing artists, though I didn’t disqualify the work of scholars and critics who do not produce works of art. This, too, is something that doesn’t need to be complete by a given deadline; it's something I could add as I went along. And, again, the space for it is potentially unlimited, not something that requires a trade-off between poetry and commentary.

Perhaps the most important internal feature of a web anthology’s lack of fixity is that no one is permanently and categorically excluded. This is not the case with print anthologies. Once the ink dries, whomever is excluded is cast permanently out of that particular garden. The sense of exclusion in print anthologies can create problems ranging from a poet’s sense of lost opportunity to ferocious squabbling, back biting and other forms of infighting, the flattering of editors, and the generation of deep-seated and long lasting grudges. An anthology’s finality can also generate lack of credibility on the part of readers. In the web environment, much of this simply disappears. If Dick and Jane aren’t part of the anthology today, they may be tomorrow; the need for competition eases, and with a bit of luck, this may even lead to a greater sense of cooperation rather than one-up-manship.

This expands further in the context of the web as a whole. Dick and Jane may very well be people who’d have to undergo something like a Damascus Road conversion to appear at my site, and probably would have to do so at about the time hell freezes over, but my site isn’t the only one on the web. If you don’t find them at my site, you can probably find them somewhere else using the same means you used to access Light and Dust. If links don’t take you where you want to go, search engines, for all their weaknesses, may help. If Dick and Jane can’t find anyone to publish them online, nothing’s stopping them from setting up a website of their own. If they’ve been so far unrecognized, an environment like that of the Web will certainly get them at least some attention, and they may be able to build on that. However dogmatic any site may become, if it’s on the web it still potentially connects to all other sites. You don't have to buy more books or check out other libraries: if you can get to Light and Dust, you can get to any other public site on the Web.

My approach to poetry is eclectic, anti-hieratic, pluralistic, and decentralized. Despite the use of the Web by totalitarian factions in attempts to establish dominance, the Web has a tendency to resist this kind of treatment. It may not always succeed, but it still provides the means for subversion of any group claiming hegemony or seeking to form an instant or pre-stacked canon. My site goes against the hegemonic grain to the extent that some people have given it such nick names as “the Resistance” and “Sweden, 1941.” That’s congenial to me and my way of looking at things, but it doesn’t come from a desire on my part to overthrow orthodoxies in order to establish a new one in their place. I see domineering cults as toxic to the general scene, and equally harmful to individuals within the various citadels themselves. The rejection of clique putsches doesn't equal a dismissal of all those inside the various armed fortresses, and members of many of these cabals appear at Light and Dust. When presented without the imperial trappings, armies of Mooneyesque cheerleaders and draconian enforcers, the work of these people can take on a greater life on its own terms.

With this antidogmatic precondition in mind, I have been able to put forward work that has been ignored, marginalized, or abused. Perhaps the most dramatic examples come from projects to put works online that have been censored or otherwise kept out of print by force. But other work that has suffered benign neglect seems just as important. There may be a paradox or a bit of serendipity in this. I seem to be temperamentally oriented toward certain types of rebellion, confrontation, and, as some would see it, plain crankiness or contrariety. In a different milieu, this might leave me in the position of backing those who had failed by any standards, including my own. In the dispensation of the last century, however, much of the best work I know has been bashed or ignored. This makes it easy to simultaneously publish some of the best work around and some of the most abused or neglected. As important as this advocacy may be for me, it's by no means my only motivation nor does it reflect the whole show. I have been able to put up work by prominent and successful poets along with those who have been marginalized.