On Anthologies (1999)

Of the making of books, there is no end.

—Ecclesiastes, 12

Whoever is able to write a book and does not, it is as if he has lost a child.

—Nachman of Bratslav

­­A book is a sequence of spaces. Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment—a book is also a sequence of moments.

—Ulises Carrión, “The New Art of Making Books” (1980)

In my dictionary “an anthology” is defined as a collection of literary pieces; the word comes from the ancient Greek and means, literally, a gathering of flowers. By now, I have edited over three dozen anthologies, with various subjects, sizes and purposes, in addition to co-organizing a dozen book-length compilations called Assemblings which, while not anthologies in the strict sense, somewhat resemble them. This autobiographical essay is about my sense of each of these books and of anthologizing in general.

No one starts out adult life with the intention of making anthologies. One imagines oneself a poet, or a novelist, or perhaps a critic, but certainly not an anthologist. The initial idea for making anthologies inevitably comes from someone else. In my case, the muse was a young editor at a commercial publishing house to whom I claimed, over twenty years ago, that I could put together from extant sources a good critical book on the major figures and developments of post-War world literature—indeed, a book that would treat its subject better than any that then existed. He asked for a possible table of contents, a list of essays, which I prepared mostly from memory and then sent to him; but no further would it go with his firm. Apologetic, he suggested that I submit the outline to another young editor who in turn showed it to a third editor, a young man named Peter Mayer, who in 1963 had just assumed an editorial position at Avon Books. Even though I was only 23 and had not done any books before, Mayer asked to publish it. Once I had a contract and an advance of a thousand dollars, I went to work requesting permissions, rechecking my initial selections, considering alternative essays and then commissioning a few pieces that repaired holes in the critical picture (e.g., surveys of post-War Spanish writing, Canadian literature). I also spent considerable time reading contemporary literature previously unknown to me, if only to check the veracity of the essays I was publishing, but also to discover worthy subjects I might have initially missed. Although I was also in graduate school that year, swamped with reading to do for its classes, I stayed up every night until dawn, reading, reading, reading. For this anthology alone, I must have read several hundred books. As criticism was my initial literary ambition—the poetry and other creative work did not begin until later—I wrote a few short essays myself.

The manuscript was delivered in the spring of 1964. On Contemporary Literature, as the book was called, appeared that fall with a target on its cover in a distinctive package with rounded outside corners that Avon thought would be an innovative marketing success—they were wrong. Nonetheless, by 1968, as the book’s original edition had sold out, Avon commissioned me to do a revision which had several new essays and short appendices to selected earlier essays (and corners with right angles, thankfully.) Rights to do a hardbound reprint of this earlier edition were sold to Books for Libraries, which years later was sold to Arno Books, which kept On Contemporary Literature in print for many years. My last royalty check from Avon came in early 1974. The amount on its face read $1.00; and rather than collect the pittance, I affixed that check to my study door, to remind one and all about the scale of remuneration for doing serious literary anthologies.

Looking back at On Contemporary Literature, I think I was perhaps too impressed with the then-current promotions of the commercial publishers’ publicity departments and of the fad-making flacks (who are in turn responsive to clues from the publicity departments); for in that book are individual essays on John Updike and Philip Roth, both of whom were then scarcely over thirty. A little wiser now, I would be more skeptical about fresh high fliers; for even though Roth and Updike have survived, it would have been terribly easy for an ambitious young man (such as myself) to get conned into a selecting a hot shot who might quickly disappear. Nearly two decades later, I remain impressed with some of my selections—essays on Thomas Pynchon and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Leslie Fiedler on John Barth, Stanley Edgar Hyman on Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Roland Barthes on Alain Robbe-Grillet, etc. Perhaps the only individual featured whose reputation has not since advanced was Muriel Spark; and it is my recollection that it was she, and only she, whom the publisher insisted be treated with an individual essay. In this book, unlike later anthologies, I was by and large not establishing new taste or making courageous selections but, instead, reifying advanced literary taste of the middle 1960s. It was therefore a book that both publishers and professors immediately liked, some of the latter even recommending it as the “best single book on the subject.” Perhaps that explains as well why more copies of it were sold than any other I have published since; yet other books of mine have had more impact, while, more crucially, other anthologies are more commonly connected to my name.

The next collection, The New American Arts, would likewise cover with several hands a territory that would not be grasped with one. Fundamentally, however, it was a different sort of book, for my purpose here was making taste, rather than cleaning up behind the taste-making of others. What happened was this. In 1963, Contact, a new California magazine, commissioned me to do a comprehensive critical survey on recent American theater—of the playwrights and theater groups who had just emerged. My essay turned out to be several thousand words long; and once it was done, I remembered that, while in college a few years before, I had received from Ben Raeburn, the chief of Horizon Press, a letter flattering my undergraduate review of a Harold Rosenberg book he had published and incidentally asking whether I had any book-length manuscripts for him to see. Well, there was none at that time, but that is the sort of invitation that an aspiring writer does not forget. (That perhaps was precisely its purpose.) So, I sent him the theater essay, proposing a collection of similarly comprehensive critical surveys on new developments in the other arts. To my surprise, Ben Raeburn contracted my proposal. I agreed to do a comparable essay on new fiction, in addition to the extended introduction, and got Jonathan Cott to cover new poetry; Jill Johnston, modern dance; Eric Salzman, music; Max Kozloff, painting; and Harris Dienstfrey, film. (Since I took a single share for editing, four-ninths of the royalties were mine.) I remember editing their contributions closely, though perhaps not as thoroughly as I would come to edit previously unpublished contributions to anthologies of mine. The essays on poetry, modern dance and music taught me much about those arts, as my own later writings on those subjects no doubt show. That on painting is the toughest to read—I remember working very hard to repair it and then hearing its style ridiculed at the time—while Dienstfrey’s is essentially thin. My own on fiction takes too long to get to its positive points. Nonetheless, the book was up-to-date at the time of publication, introducing readers to advanced American arts in the early 1960s; and several years later anyone can judge that we were generally accurate in its portrayal of the emerging scenes. The New American Arts must have been provocative too, to witness Jonathan Miller’s vehemently negative review in the New York Times Book Review. The paperback edition, which Collier published in 1967, remained in print through the 1970s.

Twelve from the Sixties was commissioned in 1964 by Avon, which published On Contemporary Literature; but it was returned to me in 1965 I later discovered because of pressure from an older anti-Semitic writer whom the Jewish editor was courting. It took my first agent, Perry Knowlton, a year or so to find a new publisher for it, and that remains the only anthology that found its publisher through an agent. By and large, for the kind of serious anthologies I want to do, agents are ineffective, not only because there is not enough profit to motivate their enthusiasm, but because for books of this kind the editor’s sympathy for the proposal (or me) is more persuasive than any agent. When I began work on this project, Twelve from the Sixties was meant to be the most advanced fiction anthology around—a selection of emerging talents, a definition of a new kind of story. However, by the time the book appeared in 1967, some of this edge was blunted. The selection of Tillie Olsen, Kenneth Koch, Bernard Malamud, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, et al., seemed considerably less adventurous only a few years later. What does impress me about this book, even now, is less the contents than my introduction in which I trace the evolution of short fiction from the traditional arc story to the modern epiphany story, epitomized by James Joyce, to the totally flat contemporary story in which every part of the uninflected narrative contributes to the whole. This must have been pioneering criticism at the time as my ideas were plagiarized in more places, and in more ways, than I care to remember. By 1978, over a decade later, this entire introduction was reprinted as the concluding essay in someone else’s academic anthology of critical essays on the American short story, which is to say that my essay survived long after the book containing it disappeared from common print.

From the beginning of my critical career, I thought that I should keep track of the literature of my generation, much as Edmund Wilson, an early idol, did forty years before me; and for several years I tried to get a magazine to commission an extended critical essay on those serious writers who were, like myself, born around 1940. No one ever commissioned it, in part because the literary moguls in the 1960s were not interested in the literary young—that was one key difference between the 1960s and not only the 1920s but now—but also because the kind of serious young literary magazine that might be predisposed to commissioning it did not exist in the 1960s. That is to say that there were no descendants of The Dial or even The New Republic. Instead, it was a time, on one hand, for the New York Review of Books, which succeeded by exploiting well-established reputations, rather than fomenting new ones; and, on another hand, for the “underground press,” which was sub-literary, if not sub-literate. (Not minds, but “heads,” as we said at the time.) Instead, the essay I wanted to do (and stand) by itself became the introduction to an anthology, The Young American Writers, whose purpose was presenting the best work of poets, novelists and essayists under thirty. This book’s publisher was an old dictionary house that had a brief fling with tradebook publishing before it was swallowed by another conglomerate. And my anthology sank in its wake. Sometime in the future, those who keep track of such trivia might credit me with the early recognition of Jerome Charyn, Frank Chin, Jonathan Cott, Louise Glück, Dick Higgins, Robin Morgan, Joyce Carol Oates, David Shapiro, and Ed Sanders, among others.

Not unlike others of my generation, I sympathized (and learned from) the radicalism of the late 1960s, but it seemed to me that most “movement” people had naïve notions of social change in modern society. For one thing, they did not know much about technology and thus had little sense of how it was changing the world, largely for the better; and partly to expand their intellectual horizons, but also to discover my own synthesis, I edited an anthology of technology-conscious, future-centered writings about social change. Whereas The New American Arts was about advanced art, this was about comparably avant-garde social philosophy. I titled it provocatively, Beyond Left & Right, even though I considered myself more left than right, because I thought that certain left prejudices were intellectually (and thus radically) limiting. Also, this book had less influence than I hoped, although individuals here and there have told me that it meant a lot to them. I also think it the best—the most original and most substantial—of my four anthologies on this theme. Its successors were Social Speculations (1971), Human Alternatives (1971), and The Edge of Adaptation (1973).

One way in which these four anthologies differ from On Contemporary Literature, say, is that they are, to repeat my theme, even more decisively about the making of taste, rather than the sweeping up of tastes already made by others. My synthesis was original and independent, and it was not subservient to any established political interests, either of the right or of the left. That last observation may explain why these books were scarcely reviewed—reviewers and review-editors are, after all, very inclined to accept what fits their intellectual preconceptions, whether positively or negatively, especially if the book is also prominently promoted. By the 1980s, I find these four books naïve and dated (especially in their 1960s optimism); and since my feelings towards my anthologies of literature and criticism are not so distant, perhaps it would be wiser for me to stick to what I know best. I think I have.

In 1966, an Italian literary magazine that had already published critical essays of mine, Nuova Presenza, asked me to edit a Piccola anthologia della nuova poesia americana, which is to say a little anthology of American poetry. Somehow, somewhere, I got permission to have the Italians translate poems and excerpts by John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, Robert Mezey, W. D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder and James Wright—poets who were mostly then around forty years old. These selections were then prefaced by an 800-word essay that I now find embarrassingly perfunctory in style and conventional in thought. (Whenever one writes criticism with foreign readers in mind, there is an unfortunate tendency to simplify.) The selection could have survived as well without the introduction. On second thought, if the selection has more weight and purpose than the introduction, then perhaps the anthology is unnecessary.

Having read all the full-length anthologies of post-WWII U.S. poetry, I knew that a better one could be done. On one side were several books representing the academic traditions, beginning with the first selection of Hall-Pack-Simpson (1955); on the other were the anthologies of nonacademic poets, beginning with Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). My initial hypothesis was that since both sides had good poets (as well as bad), a better book could be done that includes the best of both schools and then several newer poets whom both sides neglected. Once the contract was in hand, I went to Puerto Rico with a large suitcase full of books, reading them all day at the beach and then making notes toward an introduction in the evening; and before I let myself go home, I hit upon a theme that would organize not only my opening essay but also the entire book (and incidentally give it a title). Like all good critical ideas, this theme gave the project an intelligence that literally exceeds my own. Put simply, my theme was to regard American poetry in the post-WWII period as a series of reactions to the rather formal and restrictive T. S. Eliot establishment of 1945, and the cumulative result of all these reactions was a new pluralism in which a variety of poetic styles was feasible. My title was Possibilities of Poetry. In the long introduction I sketched each of these alternative stylistic positions and then identified their major practitioners. The book itself has ten discrete sections, each marked by a Roman numeral, and within each section a particular sort of poetry is gathered. My recollection is that the publisher wanted me to give each section a verbal sub-title, but that struck me as making too explicit what ought best remain implicit. This anthology, like most of mine, closes with an elaborate bibliography, listing not only titles of the chosen poets’ books but selected articles about them, plus a general bibliography of books about modern poetry and American poetry. My thought is that since my anthologies are mostly designed not to close but to open their subjects, I would also mention where else their readers might go.

By 1967, I had begun to do my own creative work, as distinct from my critical prose—initially visual poems. Once I sent them around to magazines, I had immediate reason to notice that such poets were not them being published—they were simply too, too “avant-garde” for the current notions of acceptable poetry. (From time to time, even nowadays, some editor reminds me that they [we] are still generically unacceptable.) I also found the earlier anthologies of “concrete” to be embarrassingly weak in either concept or selection; and whenever I identify weaknesses in the presentation of something dear to me, there arises within me the feeling that perhaps I can do better. After all, the contrasting examples of the success of visual poetry in Europe persuaded me to think that the neglect of it in America was scarcely inevitable, and one of the best ways to remedy neglect of a certain kind of work is a persuasive selection. Rosalie Frank, then the publisher of the little magazine Panache, asked me to edit a special issue. I proposed to devote it to visual poetry. Meanwhile, a new book publisher, Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, asked to publish the collection of visual poetry that I had gathered for Rosalie Frank (who then gave me permission to do something else for Panache). Imaged Words & Worded Images (1970), as this anthology was called, was certainly a handsome presentation, in a large format on heavy paper; perhaps the principal claim I can make for it now is its presentation in several pages of John Furnival’s masterpiece, Tours de Babel Changées en Ponts (1964). One tragedy in the history of this book is that the wall of American neglect was scarcely dented. A second tragedy was that the publisher folded soon afterwards, remaindering the unsold stock without telling me; for I would have offered to buy all of it, believing, then as now, that it is better that I have books of mine that their initial publishers no longer want, rather than allowing them to be dispersed, if only to be able to supply them later to those who desperately need the book. (Nowadays, such eager buyers are usually scholars, or incipient scholars.)

Back in 1968, I did an elaborate critical-historical essay on L. Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian polyartist who had come to America in 1938 and had lived in Chicago until his premature death at the age of 51, in 1946. This essay initially appeared in a special issue of Salmagundi devoted to the German refugee intellectuals. Moholy-Nagy’s widow, Sibyl, recommended both the essay and me to Paul Cummings, a freelance art historian who had just founded a series of “Documentary Monographs in Modern Art.” He contracted me to edit a book of essays by and about Moholy—to make a mosaic portrait, as well as compile an appendix of documentation. Moholy was then, and still is, one of my favorite modern artists, and the materials collected between these covers remain a continuing inspiration to me. Also, from the perspective of a decade later, it can be observed that my introduction to this book sketches in outline the kind of polyartistic career (and attitudes) that later became my own.

As the work on Moholy-Nagy was going well, the publisher asked me whom else I might like to do for this series? The choice of John Cage seemed obvious—he had not been honored before in this way, and his work in several areas interested me. Indeed, one theme that tied these two documentary monographs together was that their subjects were masters of several arts but slaves to none, and both books are structured to emphasize this variousness (which I would later come to call polyartistry). Perhaps because my John Cage was for many years the only book on this central figure of contemporary esthetics, it is the anthology of mine that both composers and visual artists tend to know best. Indeed, when someone I meet for the first time connects my name to this book, rather than another, I can wager securely that he or she is probably someone involved in the nonliterary arts. When the British publisher of this book decided to remainder its edition, I purchased a thousand-plus copies and upon that foundation established my not-nonprofit imprint particularly for other remaindered books of mine: Archae (formerly RK) Editions.

Once John Cage and Moholy-Nagy were delivered, its publisher asked me to do yet another book in its series of documentary monographs. I proposed devoting it to Merce Cunningham. The publisher agreed, asking me to proceed. However, I have a private rule that applies not only to the writing of essays and books but also to the making of anthologies, and that is never do what someone else can do better. I realized that were I to do a Merce Cunningham documentary monograph I would need to draw heavily upon the advice and research of David Vaughan, who was at the time directing Cunningham’s dance school and has since become his official archivist. So I offered the project to Vaughan. He accepted my referral, but never did the book. Perhaps I should have kept the offer to myself; at least a documentary monograph on Cunningham would have appeared. For better or worse, I have never failed to fulfill an anthology contract. (Two decades later, another publisher asked me to do a Cunningham criticism anthology. Though he reneged, another publisher picked up the book soon afterwards. Once it went out of print with him, yet another publisher redid it intact.) A while later, I wanted to do a similar book on another polyartist who had become an enthusiasm of mine, Theo van Doesburg; but by then, this series of documentary monographs had disbanded.

Future’s Fictions (1971) was edited as my substitute to Panache for releasing Imaged Words & Worded Images. My initial purpose was to expand our sense of the materials of fiction and so I included a fiction composed entirely of numbers (my own), fictions composed entirely of line drawings (Marian Zazeela, Manfred Mohr), fictions composed entirely of sequential pictures (Jochen Gerz, John Furnival), in addition to examples of unusual prose from Dick Higgins, Madeline Gins and Henry James Korn, among others. It was all prefaced by an essay that remains one of the most amazing I have ever written, “Twenty-Five Fictional Hypotheses.” Even fifteen [now thirty] years later [as I’ve reprinted it elsewhere again—in Furtherest Fictions (2006)], I can hardly imagine what was in my mind when I wrote what is still such an extreme manifesto for an expanded concept of literary fiction.

Seeing through Shuck (1972) was initially meant to include some of my then-unpublished and then-bouncing manuscript on literary politics in America and thus to give it the credibility of even partial prepublication; but once my editor turned volatile and inexplicably nasty, my own original contribution was excised and then replaced by something more modest (and innocuous). Especially since the theme of this book was the muckraking courage of a younger generation of essayists, I probably should have cancelled the project—personally either confiscated or sabotaged it—in response to such censorship; but once anyone assembles an anthology that its contributors expect will appear, his or her obligations to them, in my judgment, exceeds his personal pique. Nonetheless, it pained me not that this book had a short shelf life; my principal regret was that the publisher pulped it before I was able to purchase copies. From time to time, I still get requests for this.

In Youth (1972) was another disaster for the same editor, who gave it a title that I did not see until it was too late to correct; my original title was “Writing While Young,” the gerunds of one book supposedly echoing the other. Again, some of the selections in the original manuscript were not in the final copy. Again, had the book been wholly mine, I would have razed the entire publishing house without pause; but here too I felt obliged to fulfill my commitment to the surviving contributors. This book too disappeared quickly, alas without my retrieving the remainders.

Having liked some of my earlier anthologies, Alan Rinzler, a brilliant editor then in his heyday at Holt Rinehart Winston, asked me to do a sequel to Future’s Fictions; and I readily agreed. However, soon after signing the contract, he succumbed to the lure of California. The completed manuscript I submitted to his editorial successor was deemed not just “unpublishable” but “unproducable,” which appeared to mean that, because of all the visual material and eccentric typographies, the publisher’s production department did not know how to prepare it for a printer. So Breakthrough Fictioneers, as it was called, passed onto the second (after Panache) of my smaller publishers, whose modest staff, remarkably, did know how to produce it. (In a few can be an intelligence lost to the many.) This sequel included kinds of work represented in Future’s Fictions, but now more abundantly, with nearly 100 contributors. In less than a decade, I had moved at least two steps, and several light years, beyond Twelve from the Sixties. I am relieved, if not pleased, to observe that even two decades after its original publication, Breakthrough Fictioneers remains what it was meant to be at its birth: the most way-out, most advanced, most “unacceptable” fiction anthology ever published anywhere, so help me God. I retrieved the printing negatives to this book, hoping that another publisher would someday reissue it; but none has.

In the same year that it appeared, another, much larger firm issued Innovative Fiction, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer. Had there been any intelligent anthology-criticism at that time, let alone a perspicacious reviewer of all kinds of new fiction, someone would have noticed that in the same year appeared two books claiming to collect the latest fiction. Both of them included writers whose names were largely unfamiliar a dozen years before, yet only one author appeared in both books, John Barth. This ideal reviewer might have further observed that my anthology included a Barth story that, unlike the one in the other book, had not been reprinted in Barth’s own collections of his short fiction. There was obviously a profound difference between us, if not a debate, as there would be when another new fiction anthology appeared with many of the Klinkowitz-Somer’s authors—Joe David Bellamy’s Superfiction (1975). The dividing issue, as I see it, is that the Klinkowitz-Somer anthology, as well as Bellamy’s, deals with evolutions within the history of fiction. Their books contain fictions that, in their editors’ minds, go beyond the new celebrities of the 1950s and 1960s—beyond, say, Malamud, Bellow, Ellison, Barthelme, et al. Mine, on the other hand, is filled with fictions that esthetically resemble advanced contemporary art as I know it.

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.

One more thing I like to do for an open-ended anthology, such as Breakthrough Fictioneers, is announce its purpose publicly, in media such as Coda, the COSMEP Newsletter, or even the New York Times Book Review. Also within the permission form that I send potential contributors is my explicit request to consider other works that fit my particular theme (which I try to define as specifically as possible). I find, on one hand, that remarkably little comes from these announcements, perhaps because any writer who has seen my anthologies knows that they are not just way-out but scrupulously principled. On the other hand, those few submissions that arrive this way are usually accepted! The paradox is that these compilations are editorially open within their closed conceptions.

Once Breakthrough Fictioneers was delivered, it seemed appropriate to do a successor for Something Else, and this anthology would do something similar for literary and cultural exposition—stretch our sense of how it could be done. Again I collected bushels of stuff that was delivered in the summer of 1973. However, by then Something Else was falling apart—it went bankrupt the following year. Fortunately, another new small press, Out of London, arose to issue Essaying Essays, as it was called. In part because no one else has ever produced an anthology of alternative exposition, this remains a singular book, if not the most original of my collections (and perhaps the most surprising). It contains essays in unusual prose forms, charts, skeletal expositions, picture essays, innovative structures and much else that is different from traditional expository writing. Of my big anthologies, it is also, in my opinion, the richest in its individual inclusions, such as W. H. Auden’s chart of romanticism, the George Maciunas visual history of Fluxus, Moholy-Nagy’s geometric outline of overlapping themes in Finnegans Wake, Ihab Hassan’s “Post-Modernism.” Much as I believe in principle that something newer is always possible, in editing as in art, I seriously doubt whether this, as a collection of alternative essaying, will ever be surpassed.

Whereas my relationship to Essaying Essays was very close, that to my next anthology, Language & Structure in North America, was distant in more ways than one. In the summer of 1974, I was asked to guest-curate an exhibition of structurally innovative language art. Though I had never done an exhibition before, I was seduced by the opportunity to extend my editorial/anthological interests into another medium—in this case, the display gallery. What I failed to anticipate were certain strategic differences: 1.) Whereas contributors to an anthology submit sheets of paper that need not be returned, those contributing to an exhibition send objects that they expect to get back; the clerical nuisance is thus so much greater. 2.) It follows that certain expansive principles I had developed in editing Breakthrough Fictioneers or Essaying Essays—the inclusion of as many people doing such work as possible, if only to substantiate through large numbers the presence of my subject—were simply hazardous in this medium. Whereas a book anthology can handle as many as 100 separate contributors, an anthological exhibition cannot feasibly serve more than twenty. 3.) When a gallery reneges on its contract, as happened here when its director resigned, the alternatives are so few that you accept the first and only, even if it exudes suspicious odors. The trouble is that gallery directors can be more preemptive than book publishers, in this case installing the show, in my absence, in ways I would have opposed, were I present, and, in the case of the accompanying catalog, choosing the illustrations without reference to what I was saying. Even though this book has my name, my ideas, my title and my introduction, the selection of putatively supporting examples is not mine at all. Whether Language & Structure in North America is still my anthology is a provocative critical question. I think it is, because it reflects my ideas about language art and my critical distinctions, even if I would have chosen differently from the materials available.

As more and more of my anthologies were being published by small presses, rather than large, the differences were becoming apparent. While large presses may have dumb hierarchies, where each level panders to the stupidities and inadequacies of those above it, small presses have only a few people, if not one person; and the state of that person’s being can decisively affect the publication of one’s book. Tom Montag commissioned Younger Critics in North America because he was successfully editing and publishing (and typesetting) Margins, then the best of the small-press reviews; and he wanted to establish a book list. Since we were both passionately concerned about the survival of serious literary criticism in America, it seemed appropriate for me to do for his new imprint an anthology of the best work of emerging practitioners. However, by the time I delivered the book, Montag collapsed, perhaps of exhaustion, and moved from Milwaukee to the Wisconsin countryside, abandoning his magazine and, incidentally, his promises to his contributors. The book appeared belatedly, and it was never widely distributed.

My disappointment in its fortunes notwithstanding, one detail I like about this book is the intelligent order of the essays, as the sequence of subjects moves from traditional literature to high modern literature (Djuna Barnes, Raymond Queneau, James Joyce) to contemporary American literature to modern dance to intermedia arts to classical music to blues to rock ’n’ roll to film to photography to science fiction to Canadian writers to American minority writing to literary magazines to avant-garde fiction to book-art to sound poetry and, finally, to avant-garde anthologies. One test of the strength of the ordering here, in contrast to that in earlier anthologies of mine, is that each essay is in a place that it and only it can be.

A similar sense of optimal ordering informs my next anthology, Esthetics Contemporary, which is meant to collect the most profound essays on post-1959 art—the essays so rich with illumination about contemporary arts in general that they suggest an esthetics for our time. After my introduction, which is a critical history of American esthetics from Suzanne Langer to John Cage—from the 1940s to the 1960s—this book is divided into two major parts: essays on the arts in general, and those on specific arts. The first selection is Michael Kirby’s “The Esthetics of the Avant-Garde,” an inordinately illuminating essay that opens his book The Art of Time (1969), which has long been out of print. Then come two essays by L. Moholy-Nagy, whose last book, Vision in Motion (1946), survives for me as the single greatest encompassing essay on artistic modernism. The remainder of the first part has the following:

• The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment, by Marshall McLuhan
• Apropos of “Readymades,” by Marcel Duchamp
• Art and Disorder, by Morse Peckham
• Chance-Imagery, by George Brecht
• Semi-Constructs of the Secretaire du Registre, by Carl D. Clark & Loris ­Essary
• On Form, by Kenneth Burke
• Style and Representation of Historical Time, by George Kubler
• Art and Authenticity, by Nelson Goodman
• Systems Esthetics, by Jack Burnham
• Aesthetics and Contemporary Arts, by Arnold Berleant
• Art as Internal Techology: The Return of the Shaman—the Descent of the ­Goddess, by Jose A. Arguelles
• Intermedia, by Dick Higgins
• Criticism and Its Premises, by Harold Rosenberg

Anyone familiar with even a few of these essays can tell that this is a heady mix of ideas about contemporary art, from both radicals and conservatives, both philosophers and artists, contributors born in 1946 along with those born in 1906, 1897 and 1887.

In the second part of Esthetics Contemporary are essays on particular arts, and again the table of contents makes its own point:

• Modernist Painting; Necessity of Formalism [two essays], by Clement ­­Greenberg
• My Painting, by Jackson Pollock
• “Art-as-Art,” by Ad Reinhardt
• The General Public is Just as Disinterested in Art as Ever, by Will ­­Insley
• Realism Now, by Linda Nochlin
• 10 Structurists in 20 Paragraphs, by Lucy R. Lippard
• The Expanding and Disappearing Work of Art, by Lawrence Alloway
• Meaningless Activity, by Walter de Maria
• A Sedimentation of the Mind, by Robert Smithson
• Phenomenal Art: Form, Idea, Technique, by James Seawright
• De-Architecturization, by James Wines
• The Composer as Specialist, by Milton Babbitt
• The Future of Music, by John Cage
• Music as Gradual Process, by Steve Reich
• Glass and Snow, by Richard Foreman
• The Impermanent Art, by Merce Cunningham
• A Quasi-Survey of Some “Minimalist” Tendencies in Quantitatively ­­Minimal Dance Activity, Midst the Plethora, by Yvonne Rainer
• Words per Page, by Paul Sharits
• “When the Mode of the Music Changes the Walls of the City Shake,” by ­­Allen Ginsberg
• An ABC of Contemporary Reading, by Richard Kostelanetz
• Pre-face, by Jerome Rothenberg
• Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium, by David Antin
• The Education of the Un-Artist, III, by Allan Kaprow
• Concept Art, by Henry Flynt
• Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, by Sol LeWitt
• A Something Else Manifesto, by Dick Higgins

In the second part of the book, to summarize, the discussion moves from painting to sculpture to artistic machines to architecture to music to dance to video to happenings theater to conceptual art to polyartistry, and as such the second part becomes a genre-centered survey that subsumes a more advanced esthetics.

My next anthology, Visual Literature Criticism, has a more particular subject. It began as a special issue of the literary magazine West Coast Poetry Review; and since I had by 1978 begun to co-edit Precisely, a critical journal devoted to experimental writing, it seemed appropriate to make the subject a special issue of this new magazine as well. Then, Southern Illinois University Press asked to do it as a hardback book. Behind this project, as well as my editing of Precisely, stands my sense of the importance of criticism in the history of avant-garde writing. Forever Precisely quotes Hugh Kenner’s perspicacious formulation from The Pound Era (1971):

There is no substitute for critical tradition: a continuum of understanding, early commenced. ... Precisely because William Blake’s contemporaries did not know what to make of him, we do not know either, though critic after critic appeases our sense of obligation to his genius by reinventing him. ... In the 1920s, on the other hand, something was immediately made of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and our comfort with both works after 50 years, including our ease at allowing for their age, seems derivable from the fact that they have never been ignored.

By “Visual Literature” I mean works with language, conceived with reference to the traditions of literature, that are primarily visual in their organization and means of enhancement. Thus, David Seaman writes about French visual poetry of the Renaissance, Clive Philpott about imaginative books whose content is primarily photographs, Emma Kafelanos on Dada and Visual Poetry, Jonathan Price on the I Ching as a Visual Poetry, and Raymond Federman on the French novelist Maurice Roche. While scarcely the concluding work on its subject, Visual Literature Criticism does, I hope, lay a foundation for further critical discussion.

Its immediate sequel was a book that also began as a special issue of Precisely. Aural Literature Criticism (1981) contains essays on language works that must be heard to be understood, much as visual literature must be seen, because the former are enhanced primarily in terms of sound, rather than syntax or semantics. Thus, Aural Literature Criticism has essays about sound poetry in general, on radio literature, and on the critical methodologies relevant to intermedial literature. On the sheet of paper announcing the project and soliciting contributions I asked for extended essays on precursors and folk analogues, such as speaking in tongues or glossalalia, but nothing on those subjects came in. One difference between compiling an anthology of previously published materials and making one up from scratch, as was done here, is that an editor necessarily depends upon his contributors; he cannot make them write what they do not know, or want to do. In this book, as in its predecessor, is a brief bibliography of “essays I would gladly have included here, had they not already been published.” Always, always, should an anthology direct readers outside itself; never, never should the anthologist, particularly of criticism, assume that his book terminates the discussion.

The Yale Gertrude Stein (1980) began with a postal card to the Yale University Press, asking whether they had ever thought of issuing a one-volume selection of the eight volumes of Gertrude Stein’s posthumously published books of previously unpublished writings. Those eight volumes had appeared from Yale annually from 1951 to 1958 and then were allowed to go out of print in the 1960s. (Around 1969, a publisher that reprints expensive hardbacks, mostly from libraries, reissued them at a price too high for the individual buyer—over $100 for the set.) Yale agreed, and my anthology appeared within a year of my proposal, its pages being offset directly from the original editions. It seems odd, in retrospect, that no one had thought of prompting Yale to do this before. I guess that many people assumed that since the works in these eight volumes were all unpublished in Stein’s own lifetime (and, in effect, self-published by the terms of her own will), nothing in them could be very good. Quite the contrary is true. They contain, and I reprint, all but one of Stein’s most important longer poems: “Patriarchal Poetry,” “Lifting Belly,” and the incomparable “Stanzas in Meditation.” In my introduction, I emphasize Stein’s more experimental writings; for it is my considered opinion (and the point of my selection) that if you take the conventional view—that she wrote two charming books, Three Lives and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, plus a lot of incomprehensible crap—then Stein is a minor writer. However, if you examine this alleged “incomprehensible crap” closely, you will discover that Stein was a supremely experimental writer, working in a variety of unprecedented ways. Indeed, she was perhaps the single most inventive writer in the history of American letters. Incidentally, I initially wanted to call this book “Gertrude Stein at Yale”, echoing Frank Merriwell at Yale—a series of boys’ books from the early twentieth century—and also reminding us that not until recently were women admitted as undergraduates at Yale; but the publisher either missed or pretended to miss the joke.

Text-Sound Texts (1980) began as proposals to the Visual Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1976, it funded me to do a comprehensive critical survey of text-sound art (aka “sound poetry”) in North America. I wanted initially to show that American work of this kind existed, even if it were less familiar than European, and that at least two dozen Americans were doing significant work. This fifty-page report was finished by the end of that year (and subsequently published, in abridged form, in Performing Arts Journal in 1977-78 and unabridged in my own 1981 book, The Old Poetries and the New). In an appendix to this research paper I outlined a possible book of texts of the kinds of work described in the report’s preceding pages. Two years later, the same NEA program gave me sufficient funds to collect these texts into a book. As before, I felt obliged to include as many people as possible. In the preface I implicitly ridiculed another kind of anthological motive. “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.” So this book too had over 100 contributors. Once I had a camera-ready typescript ready, I showed it to the trade publisher William Morrow who, to my surprise (as well as perhaps theirs), agreed to issue it in both paperback and hardback editions. Even though Text-Sound Texts is clearly the most avant-garde literary anthology ever published by a commercial house in this country, it was scarcely promoted, barely advertised, and finally unreviewed. For better than worse, all the remaindered copies became mine.

Scenarios (1980) likewise began with a grant, this time from the Theater Program of the New York State Council on the Arts; and Assembling Press had agreed to dollar-match the NYSCA contribution with funds from a 1979 NEA grant to the Press. Here the subject was radically alternative forms of theatrical scripting; and to make sure I would not use anything familiar, I ruled at the beginning that this book would include no scripts with dialogue—that got rid of 99% of all plays; no scores with specific musical notes or musical instruments—that eliminated a lot as well; no scripts for translation into media other than live performance—that eliminated radio scripts and film scripts; and no proposals for static conceptions, eliminating environmental installations. Given these rigorous exclusions, the book became a collection of monologues, visual scripts, physical activities, open-air events, texts with randomly ordered lines, and so forth. As the most radical collection of performable scripts ever published, it moved far beyond any earlier anthology of its genre. In part because I failed to keep close track of how many contributions I was accepting, Scenarios is also the hugest of my collections, running over 704 pages, and likewise containing over a hundred people. Because the book became so big, the fee earmarked for myself to edit it had to go back into the production budget; and I had to do all of the busywork myself—reading submissions, obtaining permissions, copyediting, arranging typesetting, mailing proof to the contributors, proofreading, design, paste-up, hiring the printer and even distributing the contributors’ copies. That is much too much work for one person, and never again, I swear, will I get stuck doing everything.


All through the 1970s I was involved with Assembling which, while not an anthology in the strict sense of a conscious selection of flowers, is nonetheless a compilation of the works of many people and incidentally an illustrative contrast to the traditional anthology. Assembling was an annual devoted to “otherwise unpublishable creative work.” and what we did is this: From editing anthologies and simply reading my mail, I came to know hundreds of people who were doing imaginative work that has been otherwise unpublishable, not because it is weak, but because it is blatantly unconventional. Assembling invited such people to submit 1,000 copies, 8 1/2” by 11”, of no more than three separate sheets of whatever they want to include. Rejecting nothing from those invited, Assembling then collated and assembled them alphabetically into a thousand books, two of which are mailed gratis to each contributor; the remainder have gone on sale to defray expenses. We have so far produced ten Assemblings in this way.

In 1978, Assembling Press was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Pratt Graphics Center in New York City. For this exhibition, I edited, designed, and produced a catalogue that is yet another anthology, this of history and documentation, with the same title as the exhibition, Assembling Assembling. In addition to my own memoir of the Press, this book contains remarks by others about Assembling and an exhaustive bibliography of all the books of poetry, fiction and art that it has published, in addition to the annuals, and then lists all the individuals—nearly 500, in sum—who have contributed to Assembling. The book becomes the operation’s own anthology not of itself—the standard sort of celebration for a periodical—but, in an odd twist, about itself.

In 1979, Assembling Press received from the National Endowment for the Arts a grant to do a different kind of Assembling. Instead of collecting a thousand sheets from every contributor, we asked possible collaborators “to produce no more than two (2) camera-ready pages apiece, 8 1/2” by 11”, of critical commentary on radical/experimental tendencies in contemporary literature.” Given the absolute contributor freedom that is the promise (and trademark) of Assembling, it is scarcely surprising that we received a variety of pieces, some verbal, others visual, some anti-avant-garde, most pro-, a few even criticizing me (!); and all of them were included in this 336-page book. It is possible that twenty years from now others might regard this Ninth (Critical) Assembling (1980) as a symposium of advanced art-literary thinking at that time.

Also in 1979, the director of the Forum Series of the Voice of America asked me to do a successor to their earlier volumes on American literature, this new book to be called American Writing Today. From the beginning I had doubts about working for the U.S. propaganda agency, which obviously needed an intermediary to get contributions from writers who would instantly turn the VOA down if it approached them directly. On the other hand, I was seduced by the chance to establish for the 1980s a canon of contemporary American writing, especially for intellectuals around the world. (It is the policy of VOA to give away such book gratis, only outside the USA.) I also feared that, if I spurned the offer, the assignment would probably go to an idiot academic who would make a book that was not only unreadable but unbearable. Besides, certain earlier volumes in this Forum Series, especially Hennig Cohen’s Landmarks in American Writing, impressed me. When I submitted a list of subjects to be covered, I calculated I would resign from the project if my selections were rejected; but since only one name was deleted (John Cage!), I went ahead, inviting writers not only to talk on radio with a VOA staffer but also to contribute an essay to the Forum book. There was, I am relieved to report, no political inference with what the writers said. The published transcript shows that Allen Ginsberg, for one, relished preaching to the world through the government’s propaganda machinery.

Some problems with this book were intrinsic in the assignment. Given that the earlier VOA books on American literature were done fifteen or more years ago, my book had to have chapters on Saul Bellow, Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Burke, and Langston Hughes, all of whom should have been treated in the earlier books, but were not. Secondly, given the assignment of making a book that would be “acceptable” now and nonetheless survive for fifteen years (and, behind that, given the current peculiarities of U.S. literary politics), it became very, very difficult for me to include anyone presently under fifty. Thus, those younger writers who have individual chapters in the book are there not to talk about themselves but to be experts on new developments—Samuel R. Delany on science fiction, Dick Higgins on alternative publishing, and Sharon Spencer on literary feminism. VOA proposed that I also conduct a few symposia on general topics, since these make good radio; and I proposed in return adding a few additional symposia on more avant-garde developments, such as visual poetry and book-art. One way that American Writing Today differs from previous volumes in the VOA series is that I encouraged the contributors to be idiosyncratic. Too many other volumes in this (and similar) series give the impression that they have been written by a single machine (which is a sign of over-editing, if not more serious deficiencies). Since I wanted to make this anthology more substantial than previous volumes in the series, I also co-authored a concluding bibliographical essay on the major books about post-WWII American literature and culture.

In 1979, Poetics Today, an Israeli magazine that is, as its title suggests, very much concerned with literary theory, asked me to co-edit a special issue on “The Poetics of the New Literature,” the last epithet referring to avant-garde writing of the past two decades. For this I wanted not critical surveys but theoretical interpretations and speculations, which fortunately arrived in response to my personal solicitations. This book appeared in print more than three years after it was delivered, more than once expiring even my experienced patience with smaller publishers; and to be frank, by the time I read it myself, much of it struck me as excessively academic in two pretentious current modes, which is to say most of the contributions were either too theoretical, or not theoretical enough.

In the same year 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. With contributions from John Cage, Rosemarie Castoro, Vito Acconci, Spalding Gray and Richard Foreman, among others, it appeared in 1982.

The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature (1982) echoes the very first in certain respects, being a collection of literary criticism; but this one is more reflective of my current interests, as well as my taste-making bias. It collects critical histories of the most experimental developments in modernist literature, such as Vladimir Markov on the Russian Futurists, Rosmarie Waldrop on concrete poetry, Michael Kirby on the new theater and the concluding chapter of Moholy-Nagy’s awesome Vision in Motion, along with theoretical essays by both estheticians and practitioners: Guillaume Apollinaire’s “The New Spirit and the Poets,” Northrop Frye’s “The Archetypes of Literature,” “The Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry” by the de Campos brothers and Decio Pignitari, and so on. In addition to being a radical alternative to several available anthologies of criticism of modernist literature, this also attempts to establish, again by several hands what has not yet been done by one, what many of us consider to be the most viable current literary tradition—an extreme experimental tradition that, as we see it, survives to this day. In putting together what would not otherwise exist, as well as in other aspects, The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature relates to the preceding anthologies in a continuing enterprise whose parts are elaborately interlocking.

Gertrude Stein Advanced (1991) is a collection of extended critical essays on my favorite early modernist writer. Here I selected criticism focusing upon the more experimental works, such as those favored in The Yale Gertrude Stein; for it is my argument, to repeat, that if you take these seriously, as I do, then Stein becomes “The Great American Person of Avant-Garde Letters.” Indeed, that encomium is the title of an anthology of the more experimental Stein, selected from her books other than the Yale eight, that a small commercial publisher asked me to do around 1980; but it reneged on that contract. As long as the Yale Stein remains in print, publishing for this other collection, even with its different introduction and supplementary contents, becomes more problematic.

In the middle 1990s, I developed a “strong relationship,” as literary agents say, with Richard Carlin, first at A Cappella and then at Schirmer Books. At the former he published the first anthology of criticism about Merce Cunningham, by common consent the foremost avant-garde choreographer of the latter half of the 20th century; at the latter house, he contracted not only Nicolas Slonimsky: The First 100 Years (1994), which celebrated the centenary of America’s principal musical lexicographer; and APortable Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1995), which extracted from 2115 double-columned pages a book of 284 single-columned pages, whose type extends to the standard width of 4 inches. Not only did I select which Baker’s entries to use but I edited within them, seamlessly I hope, into an anthology that differs from the others not by selecting but by abridging a single source, hopefully selecting the choicest flowers nonetheless.

Carlin also commissioned me to do A Frank Zappa Companion (1997), containing printed materials not commonly available about the principal intellectual of counter-rock; A B. B. King Companion (1997), likewise collecting words about the greatest American living blues singer; and Writings on Glass (1997), which becomes the richest critical book on the most prominent American composer of that generation now in its early sixties. Carlin contracted me to work with a former intern, Joseph Darby, in compiling Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music (1996), for which he perceived a need after attending a musicologists’ conference. One virtue of this last collection was rescuing selections that were not commonly available, such as Glenn Gould’s “The Prospects of Recoding” (1967), David Dunn’s “A History of Electronic Music Pioneers” (1992/1996), and Alban Berg’s “The Problem of Opera” (1928). By the time Classic Essays appeared, only a few years later, the need apparently evaporated; and I’ve wondered about the wisdom of ever again editing an anthology for a purported “market.”

For another publisher I edited John Cage: Writer (1993), a more pioneering book, which gathers previously uncollected words in the course of making a case for him as a distinguished writer who was also a world-class composer. This sense of Cage as multi-sided also informed Writings About John Cage (1993), which gathered not the best criticism ever published but pieces that had not previously appeared in books. One of the great tragedies was that bound proof of this book arrived at his house the day he died (just as a copy of Gertrude Stein Advanced arrived at Leonard Bernstein’s just after he died, containing a remarkable appreciation of Stein’s writing that Bernstein wrote in 1949, even caring enough about it to send me for my book an original text that was quite different from the one published at the time in the New York Times Book Review). One implicit principle of my anthologizing is a commitment to the very best—not only in my choice of subjects but in my selections.


Since I have done so many anthologies by now, the reader might get the false impression that publishers are begging for my proposals; quite the contrary is true. The problem is, simply, that nearly all of my anthologies have no precedent; they are not imitations of commercially successful formulas. Nor are they designed to fit snugly into the reading lists of popular college courses. Indicatively, many of them have taken several years to get into print. Scenarios, for instance, was first conceived in 1973, when I hit upon both the concept and the title. At the time I established a manila file in which I put either copies of works that I thought ought to be included or notes about where to find such works in my library. From time to time I proposed Scenarios to publishers both large and small, without any success. In 1978, Assembling Press applied for a grant to publish it, and applied again in 1979, when we were successful. The book appeared in 1980. The theme of Esthetics Contemporary, for another example, occurred to me in 1970, when the first outline was prepared; but not until 1976 did Prometheus Books commission it and not until 1978 did it appear, only to be reprinted thankfully with different contents in 1989. Similarly again, The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature was first conceived in 1975, but not until 1981 did the same publisher contract it.

That same publisher commissioning “The Great American Person” also asked me to do an anthology of previously uncollected Jack Kerouac, including his experimental masterpiece, Old Angel Midnight; and the manuscript for this anthology was even typeset. However, the trouble here was that the author’s widow, Stella Kerouac, decided not to sign the contract that her agent had prepared for her. Or so I was told by the disappointed prospective publisher.

From time to time I imagine that I should like to do one-person anthologies—”portables,” as they are called, in one prominent line—of my very favorite authors, especially if such a collection could radically reinterpret their work, or give readers a different, fresh sense of their individual achievement. What I proposed for Kerouac I did for E. E. Cummings, whose more experimental writings are so rarely included in anthologies (which favor, instead, his cute lyrics); and my selections for AnOther E. E. Cummings (1998) also included experimental prose and critical essays that incidentally establish him as the first American theater reviewer to focus more upon performance, as in vaudeville theaters, than literary drama (much as I have done in my own theater criticism). I could imagine editing comparable reinterpretative anthologies, as we might call them, of Ogden Nash and Carl Sandberg, among others, and have mentioned those possibilities in short critical essays on both those writers, to no avail, alas. It might likewise be valuable to collect the most accessible Kenneth Burke into a single volume and give the selections a crystalline introduction.

Certain earlier anthologies suggest sequels that have never happened. While completing Possibilities of Poetry, I noticed the absence of any collections of major recent American longer poems—poems more than, say, ten pages, but less than a book in length—even though many important native poets were working in extended forms. David Wright’s anthology, Longer Contemporary Poems (1966), contains only poems from the British Isles; and another way that I hoped to distinguish my proposed anthology from Wright’s was by giving it a more substantial introduction, if not an extended critical essay on the post-Eliot longer poem. My theme would again be alternatives to Eliot; my title for this anthology would be “Possibilities of Longer Poetry.” Among the pieces I planned to include are John Ashbery’s “Europe,” which I still regard as his very best poem; Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” which is also his very best; Jack Kerouac’s “The Sea,” which is his best; Kenneth Rexroth’s “The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart,” his best; and Jerome Rothenberg’s “The Cokboy,” ditto. From time to time publishers express interest in this proposal; as recently as 1979, one spent a full year thinking about it. I mentioned before my assumption that everything I want to do will eventually happen; and even though this proposal has been traveling for over a dozen years now, I read and think as though it will occur.

Since the beginning of the 1970s, I have from time to time proposed an anthology of avant-garde poetry that would be comparable to those I have already done on fiction, essays and theatrical scripts. I expected it to get contracted long ago, especially since I promised that it could do for poetry what Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, New American Poets, did for the 1960s and 1970s. Since Allen’s anthology has already gone through nearly twenty printings, I confidently calculated that my own might do at least half as well. However, no publisher has ever believed me about this, and so this book does not exist either, its potential cultural impact lost. By now the kinds of poetry I would have included—visual poetry, sound poetry, language-centered poetry, minimal poetry, etc.—have become more familiar, at least in sophisticated circles. Since such an anthology would have lost its cutting edge by the 1990s, perhaps it would be better now to present fuller selections of the very best new poets. My current scheme involves having eight poets with 48 pages apiece—eight retrospectives the length of a normal poetry collection—all within a single volume whose tentative title would be “Nine for the Nineties”.

In 1981 I returned from several months in Germany—my first extended trip abroad in sixteen years—with a new interest in radio drama: not the conventional radio plays with their emphatic voices and sound effects but something else. The German term Neue Hörspiel refers to ear-plays that neither adapt live theater nor create the illusion of it but, instead, exploit the unique possibilities of radio (audio) to create something that can exist only in sound. The pioneering anthology of such texts is Klaus Schöning’s Neues Hörspiel (1969). This book includes Max Bense and Ludwig Harig’s Der Monolog der Terry Jo, which presents only the thoughts within the mind of a hospitalized woman whose recovery of consciousness is portrayed in her progressing from nonsensical oral sounds to articulate speech; Ernst Jandl and Friederike Mayrocker’s Funf Mann Menschen, which compresses fourteen stages of a man’s life into fourteen vignettes, each dominated by a characteristic spoken sound. Once I saw that no Americans were included in Schöning’s book, I realized that someone ought to do a book of comparably advanced American radio texts and then that that someone would, alas, be me. It would incidentally be the first book of American radio plays in nearly four decades. The purposes of this project have been announced; submissions have come in, to be collected in a single box. The project needs only a sufficient grant to get into production.

I once had a contact to edit a selection of Virgil Thomson’s writings for a series, American Composers in Their Own Words, whose general editor I also was. I felt that the previous Thomson anthology, done by the composer along with John Rockwell, was under-edited, for one symptom of editorial flaccidity the editors’ presenting the selections in chronological order, rather than offering a more cunning arrangement. (One detail, I planned to document was Thomson’s heightened love-hate relationship with Aaron Copland by gathering together the four essays that the former wrote about the latter, over four decades. This is not the sort of move Thomson would have made, typically thinking that his final Copland essay superceded the others.) I submitted to an elderly lawyer representing the Thomson estate a tentative table of contents for his approval before submitting a permission form offering roughly half the advance for his countersignature. The lawyer replied that that he wanted his own contract, agreeing to a split of royalties. I replied that those royalties probably wouldn’t amount to much but, more dangerously, it would take the book publisher a few months to get him the contract, delaying publication that book that would benefit his dead client in subsidiary ways. He insisted, with a certain perverse glee in his voice that made me think he was taking revenge against his pugnacious client, and so I could only go along. By the time the contact arrived, this codger had retired, to be succeeded by another lawyer, who objected to certain arrangements in the contract. I told him to contact the publisher directly, rather than making me his intermediary. By the time he got around to this, the publisher had killed the series, leaving me with the advance (and a completed manuscript) and the Virgil Thomson estate with nothing—no money and no book. (Whether the losers billed their clients for their strike out I do not know.) Another publisher was seriously interested in a Thomson reader, I later told them; but since they wanted their own contract, they would need to contact the publisher directly. This much they could not do. When I was still editing the series, I thought about also collecting Aaron Copland’s best writings, but would have necessarily needed to deal with the same legal team whose gaucherie was already familiar.

In the course of writing my experimental Autobiographies, I became interested in the question of alternative forms of self-history; and since most of those departures that I liked are American in authorship (and since I am at heart culturally a patriot), it seemed appropriate to propose a collection that would include Buckminster Fuller’s “Chronofile,” James Agee’s “Plans for Work 1937,” Robert Lowell’s “92 Revere Street.” My suspicion now is that this project needs further research to discover more examples and that this next stage will not happen until the project is contractually commissioned.

As a veteran anarchist who also considers himself libertarian, I would like to do an anthology that brings together those anti-statists favoring free-market economics (and thus customarily classified as “right”, such as Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess) with those emphasizing social freedoms (and thus customarily classified as “left”, such as Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin). The only anthology known to me that broaches this synthesis is Henry J. Silverman’s that appeared long ago: American Radical Thought: The Libertarian Tradition (1970). Since it was hardly noticed at the time and is rarely remembered today, it would be appropriate to do a more contemporary selection.

Most of my proposals, like most of my anthologies, chart virgin territory. From time to time I also get ideas for radically reinterpreting a familiar subject. Even if Jerome Rothenberg is usually a good anthologist (and along with Eric Bentley, the only other American gatherer I call peer), he did one collection that strikes me as deficient—America, a Prophecy (1973). It is not as tightly structured as his other books, in part because of an unfortunate editorial collaboration; and his notion of prophecy as the center of American poetry is, in my judgment, all wrong. Reading his book closely led me to posit a radical alternative: The American tradition in poetry, as in music and in painting, is one of formal inventions in the machinery of the art—a tradition of doing technically what has not been done before, either in Europe or here. Therefore, my anthology, to be titled “The American Tradition in Poetry,” would include the more inventive poems of John Wilson, John Fiske, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Vachel Lindsay, E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, Eugene Jolas, Melvin Tolson, Bob Brown, Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac, John Ashbery, John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, as well as those contemporaries extending this indigenous tradition. Since the subject and authors here are already so familiar, my aim would be to publish a succession of selections that would, like innovative art itself, surprise as it persuades. Even though my proposal for this is a few years old by now, while my thinking about it is nearly a decade old, I expect that, as long as I do not forget about it, this anthology too will eventually appear.

Among other anthologies I would like to do would be an appropriate sequel to Text-Sound Texts, which should be a “Text-Sound Tapes,” that would, on either a pair of cassettes or a pair of long-playing records, collect the best text-sound art ever done in America; for it is my working belief, here and elsewhere, that it is only by the very best work that any new art should be judged and that, by extension, unless the best of the new is gathered together in a single place, the entire development can easily become lost from public view. My most detailed proposal for this “Text-Sound Tapes” appeared at the end of my contribution to Aural Literature Criticism; I have done shorter versions of the project within radio essays prepared for Australian and German radio.

At any time in the past decades, an adventurous publisher could have asked me to do a selection of advanced creative writings, and the title I had in mind, along with a file of possible selections, is “New Writing Now.” Unfortunately, no one asked; or perhaps I should be grateful for little favors—I already had enough else to do. Someday I would also like to put together an anthology of my own work, “A Richard Kostelanetz Reader,” so to speak, not only because the subject has long been familiar to me, but because I have had a lot of experience doing such books. My suspicion is that the contract for this, tentatively titled “All Along the Edge,” will come from a European publisher before it comes from an American.

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.

There are certain variations on the Assemblings that I have wanted to generate. One, “American Writing in 199X,” would be a 1,500-page book for which I would request one page camera-ready from every familiar American writer, however they wished to represent themselves within a single page in an alphabetical inventory of literature in America today. Between a single set of covers, I figure, we could represent the totality of what is really happening in American writing today. Three times this was proposed to the NEA, and three times it was rejected. Three times Assembling Press proposed as well, to both NYSCA and the NEA, to do a comparable project for American photography—one black-white photograph apiece from 400 American photographers; and six times we wasted our effort. At least once we made a similar proposal to represent “American Art in 198X.” More recently, I wrote in the Small Press Review that the NEA should mount a website in which every American writer could place a sample of his or her work along with links to additional material.

In 1982, Assembling Press received a grant to devote our eleventh number to Pilot Proposals. Scores of artists and writers were asked the following question: If you could apply for a grant of $500,000, what precisely would you propose to do?” Their one-page camera-ready replies were published in alphabetical order, making a marvelous collection of fantasies, cultural jokes and feasible projects, all adding to our sense of what might be possible in contemporary art.

And that, in a fundamental sense, is perhaps what my anthologies in sum are all about: What is possible in contemporary art and thought.


On Contemporary Literature. N.Y.: Avon, 1964. Freeport, NY: Books for ­Libraries, 1971. Revised edition: N.Y.: Avon, 1969.

The New American Arts. N.Y.: Horizon, 1965. N.Y.: Collier. 1967.

Twelve from the Sixties. N.Y.: Dell, 1967.

The Young American Writers. N.Y.: Funk & Wagnalls, 1967.

Beyond Left & Right. N.Y.: Wm. Morrow, 1968. Abridged, in Japanese: Tokyo: Diamond, 1973.

Piccola anthologia della nuova poesia americana. Varese, Italy: Nuova ­­Presenza—Editrice Magenta, 1968.

Possibilities of Poetry. N.Y.: Delta, 1970.

Imaged Words & Worded Images. N.Y.: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970.

Moholy-Nagy. N.Y.: Praeger, 1970. London: Allen Lane-Penguin, 1971. In German: Koln: DuMont Schauberg, 1973. In Spanish, abridged: Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 1974.

Future’s Fictions. Princeton, NJ: Panache, 1971.

Social Speculations. N.Y.: Morrow, 1971.

Human Alternatives. N.Y.: Morrow, 1971.

Seeing through Shuck. N.Y.: Ballantine, 1972.

In Youth. N.Y.: Ballantine, 1972.

Breakthrough Fictioneers. West Glover, VT: Something Else, 1973.

The Edge of Adaptation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Essaying Essays. N.Y.-Milano: Out of London, 1975.

Language & Structure in North America. Toronto: Kensington Arts, 1975.

Younger Critics in North America. Fairwater, WI: Margins, 1976.

Esthetics Contemporary. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1978; revised ed., 1989.

Assembling Assembling. N.Y.: Assembling, 1978.

Visual Literature Criticism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ., 1979.

The Yale Gertrude Stein. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ., 1980.

Text-Sound Texts. N.Y.: Morrow, 1980.

Scenarios. N.Y.: Assembling, 1980.

Aural Literature Criticism. N.Y.: Precisely—RK Editions, 1981.

American Writing Today. Washington, DC: Voice of America Forum Series, 1981; revised ed, Troy, NY: Whitston, 1991.

The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1982.

The Literature of Soho. Brooklyn, NY: Shantih, 1982.

The Poetics of the New Poetries. Tel-Aviv: Poetics Today—N.Y.: Precisely, 1983.

Gertrude Stein Advanced. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Time and Space. Flemington, NJ: A Cappella, 1992; New York: Da Capo, 1998.

John Cage: Writer. New York: Limelight, 1993.

Writings About John Cage. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1993.

Nicolas Slonimsky: The First 100 Years. New York: Schirmer, 1994.

A Portable Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. New York: Schirmer, 1995.

Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music (with Joseph Darby). New York: Schirmer, 1996.

A. B. B. King Companion. New York: Schirmer, 1997.

Writings on Glass. New York: Schirmer, 1997; Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1999.

A Frank Zappa Companion. New York: Schirmer, 1997.

AnOther E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1998.

* * *

Assemblings (annually from 1970 to 1978, except for 1974, but with two ­volumes for 1978; and then another in 1980).

A Critical Assembling. N.Y.: Assembling, 1980.

Eleventh Assembling: Pilot Proposals. N.Y.: Assembling, 1982.