Review: Brooklyn Poets Anthology
Brooklyn Poets Anthology – Jason Koo and Joe Pan, Eds.
(Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017)
“I came to Brooklyn in the summer of 2009, with only a couple of adjunct jobs lined up in the city and some money left over from an NEA fellowship I’d won the year before to keep me financially afloat.” This, along with an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is how Jason Koo opens the first of two introductions—this one titled “This Side of the Bridge”—to the 2017 Brooklyn Poets Anthology. With Brooklyn being the mecca of the US poetry scene, Koo, founder of the nonprofit organization Brooklyn Poets, is one of countless poets who have taken and continue to take the ultimate leap of faith in relocating to this New York City borough. While Brooklyn may have first been a “beacon in the imagination” (xxiii) for Koo, both its imaginative lure and tangible reality are now available to readers of the anthology.
First, the overtly capitalistic stats. A hefty 391 pages in length, the anthology features the voices of 170 poets—editors Koo and Joe Pan included—and a grand total of 256 poems. With the book priced at $25, the reader invests about 9.76 cents in each poem. That’s less than a dime, folks. This also amounts to 14.71 cents per poet, among whom are notables like 2011-2012 poet laureate Philip Levine (the only poet featured posthumously), 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess, and former and current Brooklyn Poet Laureates D. Nurkse and Tina Chang, respectively, among many others.
Just as exciting as the established literary figures present in the anthology are the fresh faces on the poetry scene, many of whom Koo identifies and lauds for standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the aforementioned rock stars of poetry. These new poets include: “Julie Hart, Patti Greenberg, Betsy Guttmacher, Dell Lemmon, Laura Plaster, Chris Roberts, Arthur Russell, Candace Williams, stand up!” (xxvii). Grad students and penny-pinchers take note: the Brooklyn Poets Anthology offers a lot of bang for one’s poetic buck.
Inclusion in the anthology was based on writers’ long-term ties to or current residence in Brooklyn at the time of selection, with a maximum of three poems per poet. The volume itself is arranged in alphabetical order by poets’ last names and much of it was funded through crowdsourcing.
Inclusion is indeed the name of the game for this collection, the first of its kind anthologizing the countless contemporary poets of Brooklyn. This anthology is not to be missed, especially as it is the first in a series; future volumes are in the works, which “will reflect the ongoing evolution of Brooklyn poets and poetry” (Koo xxvii).
And since variety and inclusion are key to this artifact—to the point at which it, at first glance, might seem overwhelming in its more-more-more mentality— the Brooklyn Poets Anthology is so expansive that it thankfully defies vapid consumption. The reader won’t binge through this in a day and immediately “understand” Brooklyn and its poetry scene. To do justice to the caliber of work presented here, the reader might read a poem or, at most, a poet per day. I, too, am still in the process of discovering and rediscovering the magic of each individual poet and each individual poem.
Koo argues that, “There is no one kind of Brooklyn poet, of course. This is what you learn here—quickly. To be here is to be jostled, and ultimately edified and strengthened, by difference...” (xxv). And yet, even with this diversity, one thing rings true for most, if not all, of the poets and poems collected here: they are loud. Certainly, some are more fans-at-a-Beyoncé-concert loud while others are more Starbucks-barista-calling-your-order loud. And yet, even the quietest among them are loud library-whispers. Take for instance, V. Penelope Pelizzon’s gentle “Barchan.” Pelizzon’s talking about a sand dune in the most delicate of ways, and she crafts her tercets so that the spacing of her text on the page resembles the shape of a barchan as well. And yet, Pelizzon amps up her poem by introducing an “I” in the final tercet and concluding one-line-stanza:
I know this, having seen
how you, stepping curiously
moved the desert.
It is this very tendency to surprise, delight, twist, and play with the reader’s expectations that makes the writer a Brooklyn poet. A Brooklyn poet plays, and when one plays, one makes noise.
“No writing is apolitical.” This is one of opening lines that Joe Pan pondered when writing his introduction—titled “Brooklyn as a Bottomless Cup” and the second of two—to the anthology. Pan, Brooklyn Arts Press publisher, acknowledges the necessity of two introductions for ensuring that Brooklyn would not be conceptualized as “some monolithic subject” (xxix). His introduction, self-described as having been composed “piecemeal” (xxix), naturally also mimics the form of an anthology—a thought here and an idea there paralleled by a poet here and another poet there.
However, Pan resists definitively framing the collection. He argues that, “…I understood, foremost, and happily, that these anthologized poems would forever speak for themselves, and in ways I could not hope to summarize; that my introduction would be merely one of a multiplicity of forthcoming gestures used to frame the experience of reading them” (xxx). While this impulse is honorable and aware of the multitudes of perspectives that abound, I worry that stepping back from further curation might hinder the potential of the anthology, both now and in the future. Certainly, choosing poems and poets is a (significant and difficult) form of curation in and of itself. Yet, featuring the poets alphabetically without a clear-cut arc is lackluster. Traditional anthologies do that, but this is the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, and Brooklyn poets shouldn’t shy away from breaking with tradition—from establishing new traditions and from setting the tone for poetry. The borough’s poets already do this on a national level; they should embrace it and I (with my complete and utter bias) would love to see the editors take a more unabashedly visible and clear-cut role in the thematic and/or formal framing of future editions.
Brooklyn Poets Anthology For poets in 2017, for poetry-lovers in 2017, for non-poets looking to read exciting works in 2017, and for students and researchers who will undoubtedly study 2017 for its historical significance, theis a must because it presents us the pulse of our nation’s poetic hub. And in an era of “alternative facts,” poetry is resistance—Brooklyn’s symbolic essence is resistance.
Krisela Karaja is a poet pursuing her MFA at UMass Boston. She is a former US Fulbright Student Research Fellow and co-founder of the Po-e-Zë (Poetry & Voice) Recitation program in Albania, which has also spread to Kosovo thanks to the dedication of some amazing Peace Corps volunteers. Her fledgling blogazine ANTI/\OJOS is scheduled to reemerge from its hiatus in the near future.