Proposal for an Inventory of American Writing Today (2004)

Discovering in an antiquariat a remarkable 1945 anthology titled Who’s Who in Poetry in America (Paebar), 1135 pages in length, priced on its jacket flap at ten dollars, I was reminded of an earlier grant proposal of mine that, though it never got funded before, could now be more feasible. The sixty-year-old book itself, which I’d not heard about before, contains poems from several hundred American and Canadian writers along with brief biographical notes and, nearly always, photographic head shots. The inclusion of pictures suggests to me that this Who’s Who must have been a vanity operation requiring each contributor to send a modest sum along with their texts. No individual is credited with editing the book, or even with organizing the correspondence. To no surprise, there is no preface.

It is not surprising either that the only contributor whose name is familiar to me, whose memory for literary names is better than most, is Robert Nathaniel Dett, better remembered as R. Nathaniel Dett, for his anthologies of Negro spirituals. I discovered on Advanced Book Exchange that a comparable book appeared in 1942 in two volumes and that the publisher Paebar had published annual thick anthologies of “verse” during the 1930s.

Even if the quality of the selections here is less than the best, the concept of a single huge collection of current American writers remains persuasive. When I was running the annual Assembling magazine and Assembling Press three decades ago, we applied to the NEA for a grant to do “American Writing in 19??,” which would result from soliciting a single camera-ready page 8 1/2” x 11”—only one—that would contain whatever each contributor wished to put on that page as representative of himself or herself. (I figured that those providing photographs in place of work were implicitly denigrating themselves.) These pages would be then reproduced alphabetically by author’s surnames in a single bound book. Typically refusing snobbery, I wouldn’t limit the contributors to those who had attained certain levels of recognition or academic certification or been selected by “a panel,” as was customary in NEA sub-granting at the time. Though I had no idea how many writers would finally contribute, I calculated that the concept along with a fixed deadline would scarce off those lacking respect for their own work or competence (or assistance) at producing camera-ready pages. I expected American writers to do as well as they could, perhaps realizing that their contribution was implicitly competing with everything else in the book (on a scrupulously level playing field). Needless to say perhaps, “American Writing in 19??” was not funded.

Who’s Who in Poetry (1945) reminded me of this idea of a national anthology of current work; but if only because the number of serious poets in the US has increased not only since 1945 but since the 1970s, if only as a result of the proliferation of institutional writing programs, samples of their work, at even one page apiece, probably would exceed the dimensions of a printable book even the size of a telephone directory.

But not the limits of a website, probably funded by the NEA, that in an ultimate Assembling could store an almost infinite number of single-page presentations, ideally with sample texts along with internet links to additional work, for everyone “online” to see. The sponsor should also reward a webmaster, who could not only assist potential contributors in preparing their pages but even renew each writer’s pages no more than once a year. Accessing this website, each of us writers would be able to examine what all our participating colleagues are doing; readers discovering a fugitive text by a certain writer could then quickly learn what else he or she was written. Need I say that the cultural benefits would be incalculable?