Editing

Some anthologies are edited ‘to keep people out.’ This one, to be frank, was edited to put everybody in. Critical discriminations were made, to be sure, within certain kinds of work, or within an individual’s work; but I have consciously endeavored to include everyone in North America doing text-sound works.

Text-Sound Texts (1980)

Shantih, a New York literary journal, asked me to edit a special issue on “New York Writing.” Given my love for my hometown, that was a sympathetic suggestion. Nonetheless, I proposed, instead, devoting this book to something more specific and less familiar: The Literature of SoHo, which is to say that writing, done mostly in my immediate neighborhood, that reflects advanced ideas in painting, music and the nonliterary arts—a literature of minimalism, intermedia, patterning and radically alternative structuring.

—“On Anthologies” (1999)

[Jerome] Klinkowitz and myself once compared thoughts on the editing of anthologies. (He has been involved with several.) What we both value is a concept so strong and definite that it automatically excludes everything except what we want. In practice, we discovered, if the anthologist’s definition of what he plans to collect is firm and clear, he will have no trouble fending off the designs of colleagues, friends, lovers and others who might want to hoist their work aboard. Anything that fundamentally differs from the clear mandate of the book, we tell our supplicants, will look curious, if not suspicious; and if that might happen, the anthologist would, in truth, be doing his or her friend/lover/colleague a favor not to include them.

The second truth we mutually discovered is that if the concept is strong, the anthology will almost select itself. How can that be? The key here, in my experience, as well as Klinkowitz’s, is the power of literary memory. I find that once a concept is established, my memory reminds me of the strongest examples. How do I know they are strong? Because my memory automatically discards weak ones; it is a subconscious process that I have developed from looking at lots of things—it is a critical mechanism in which I have learned to have faith. Indeed, experience with both anthologies and critical surveys tells me that my memory has surer taste than my conscious mind, because the former is not so easily deceived. No matter how hard someone tries to persuade me that his or her work is important, no matter how much I may like or dislike them personally, no matter how many reviews in praise of it I might have read or how many other people like it, if the work itself does not survive in my head, it is probably is not very good; it certainly wasn’t worth remembering. I realize that this revelation may expose me to charges of solipsism; but believe me, it is the best way to work, especially in beginning to gather an anthology.

From time to time I have heard others warn me against making public my plans for books, on the grounds that someone might pilfer them. However, my ideas for anthologies, as well as art, are usually too idiosyncratic for anyone else to want them, and mostly too noncommercial as well, which is to say that in purely economic terms they simply are not worth stealing. It is also true that if someone else produced a persuasive selection of, say, avant-garde American poetries today, there would be one less task for me, and that would be good, as I tend to have much too much work to do—as far as I am concerned, it is better that this child be borne by someone else (and better as well if borne by someone else than not be borne at all). Besides, by this point in time, doing or not-doing another anthology will scarcely add or subtract from my reputation (or achievement) as an anthologist. Since another book no longer matters, either to others or to me (even if I wished that it might), I am now essentially free to do, or not do, what I want.

—“On Anthologies” (1999)

In my experience, an anthology—by definition, a collection of flowers—should have a concept so strong and definite that it automatically excludes everything except what belongs. If the anthologist’s definition of what he or she plans to collect is firm and clear, he or she will have no trouble fending off the designs of colleagues, friends, lovers, and others who might want to hoist (or foist) their work aboard. It should become quite clear that anything fundamentally different from the clear mandate of the book will look curious, if not suspicious. If that might happen, the anthologist would, in truth, be doing her or her friend/lover/colleague a favor NOT to include it. (I once had to warn a particularly persistent supplicant that, if his inappropriate work were included, readers might conjecture me his lover or dope supplier.)

Conversely, one private test of an anthology of mine is whether it includes selections from people I personally dislike, even some who might have once done me dirty, simply because their work fits better than anything else. Another move new to me, which I hope is accepted elsewhere, is putting the contributors’ names under mine on the book’s title page, if only because they are, literally, my co-authors; recognition in the book’s table of contents (and perhaps its biographical notes) is not enough.

A second rule involves getting permissions. I think it better that I obtain them, with a permissions form that is returned to me; so that everyone is accountable to me as the book’s editor (and my money), rather than some publishing factotum (with someone’s else money that is customarily charged ultimately to me). This is not hard to do, if you write a friendly letter that can be easily countersigned and set aside a single file in which to collect responses. I always send the permissions forms initially to authors, if they are alive and can be found, in part because I prefer to deal with colleagues rather than conglomerates, but also because, if their publisher controls reprint rights, the authors can advise of their wish to appear in the book. Even though some friends will give you permissions gratis, out of respect for you, I customarily send a check anyway, out of respect for them. The cancelled check also becomes evidence of compliance should, say, the author’s estate snap at your tail.

A third rule involves the distribution of money. Assuming that copyright to all (or nearly all) the contents of the projected book belong to other people, I announce in my permission form what the total advance to me is and then explain that two-thirds of this sum will be divided evenly on a per-page basis among the book’s contributors or their agents, with no exceptions. So, if the advance to me is $7,500 and the book has 250 pages, two-thirds of that sum, or $5,000, is then divided evenly at $20.00 per page. A contribution ten pages long therefore gets $200.00; one five pages long, $100.00. Since the permissions agreement is made with me, I draw the payment checks myself, noting at the bottom the per-page rate and the number of pages.

One charm of this principle of equal division is preventing unnecessary negotiations and other time-consuming nonsense. A subsidiary advantage is that I can’t make any exceptions for anyone without getting into trouble with everyone else. I really can’t, because if anyone discovers that an exception had been made my reputation for fair dealing would be blown away. If someone persists in requiring that his or her permission should be higher than everyone else’s, I explain that to honor their request, “intrinsically acceptable though it would be, would violate my agreements with the other contributors and that while you might like the idea of an anthology containing only your own work, you can understand why my publisher would find such a book unsatisfactory, canceling the contract to the detriment of us both.”

In my own experience, very few prospective contributors (no more than one or two) refuse to go along with the principle of equal division, once they understand it. From time to time I’ve written a letter saying that my publisher and I argued over whether or not XYZ belonged in the book; by asking for funds beyond our means, XYZ (or his representative) has settled our argument negatively. Make people responsible for their own greed. You’d like to think the people had enough respect for their own (or their client’s) work to want it to be where an anthologist thinks it belongs, but sometimes they don’t. And there is nothing you can do about such people; my degrees are not in social work.

—“The Editing Of Book Anthologies” (1997)

One implicit principle of my anthologizing is a commitment to the very best—not only in my choice of subjects but in my selections.

—“On Anthologies” (1999)

As young writers of stylistically “different” poetry and prose, we faced not only the inevitable objections to our youth, but also the equally inevitable resistances to our wayward literary purposes. And so we wanted an institution that would publish alternative work by imaginative artists who genuinely believed in what they did. Since rejections often came with the excuse, particularly from those editors pretending to sympathy, that “our printer can’t handle this,” it seemed best to overcome this obstacle by direct action—by becoming one’s own publisher, which is more practicable in this era of photographic reproduction processes; for the oldest truth is that, when other demands are more pressing, the writer must do more than just write.

Don’t hesitate to send material that has made the editorial rounds, but remember that there’s a difference between manuscripts that are just too freaky to get published elsewhere and those that are simply not one’s own best work.

The long-range goal of Assembling is opening the editorial/industrial complex to alternatives and possibilities. The short-range goal is providing the means for unpublished and unpublishable work to see print light, partly to see what kindred spirits and spooks are doing.

Assembling (1970)

The resulting Assemblings confirmed our initial polemical point—both the book itself and its contents were unlike anything seen before. It also provided a radically different reading experience. Whereas most periodicals are designed to create uniform, uninterrupted reading, Assembling offers continual surprises from page to page—one contribution must be read, the next looked at; one is easily understood, another far more difficult. Furthermore, whereas most magazines come with an editorial imprimatur that implicitly suggests to readers that the material is good and thus worthy of attention, Assembling boasts only that its material is “otherwise unpublishable” and thus that the reader must decide how “good” any contribution is. Most readers will agree with our general assessment that, though some contributions are extraordinary, much of it is junk. However, the editors are no more sure than any other reader which is which.

—“Recalling Assembling” (1997)