Poets make the world huge: A conversation with Michael Wiegers of Copper Canyon
This year, Copper Canyon has released A House Called Tomorrow: 50 Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon a sweeping new selection of poems from the press’s fifty-year history. The collection includes beloved poems from books spanning half a century, representing Pulitzer Prize-winners, debut collections, works in translation, and rare titles from Copper Canyon’s early days.
I spoke to Michael Wiegers, Executive Editor of Copper Canyon, about the art of the anthology, how the press has changed over five decades, the nature of literary community, and much more.
The Rumpus: Some of the first poetry books I loved were anthologies, and I recently spent a joyful morning in a friend’s house flipping through the classic A. Poulin Jr. Contemporary American Poetry anthology that I first bought for a course in college, revisiting old favorites and finding poems I didn’t remember at all. When people ask me about good poetry collections for beginners, I often recommend they buy anthologies. I like how low-pressure they are, like sampler platters, offering so many different ways in, so many points of discovery. To begin in a general way, can you tell me about your relationship to anthologies as a genre? What are your favorite anthologies?
Michael Wiegers: As a publisher and editor, I enjoy introducing readers to books by individual poets, but I agree that anthologies are a great place to start, particularly when one offers the accompanying advice that readers remain open to variety, and try to treat the anthology as a wandering conversation with many points of view. I remember my earliest poetry books, given to me by my mother when I was a teen—e.e. cummings and Ferlinghetti—each of which ignited me. But those were preceded by a text from a high school English class where I scribbled in the margins of The Mentor Book of Major American Poets—one of those infamous Oscar Williams anthologies. Over the years there were other anthologies that became formative in their ways. When I was an earnest younger man, starting to get perhaps a little too intense about poetry, I pored over Hayden Carruth’s The Voice That is Great Within Us, as well as David Smith and David Bottoms’ The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, before turning to Andre Codrescu’s Up Late: Poetry Since 1970. Early in my college education I had the good sense to take a class where one of the texts was Florence Howe and Ellen Bass’s No More Masks. So strange to consider that a good number of the poets in these anthologies have since become friends and poets whose books I’ve since edited.
I was also a kid who grew up making mix tapes to connect with others, via the gift of my own tastes and testimonials about this thing I hoped they might love, too. Ultimately, we all have anthologies within us. We are each a walking anthology of the poetry we gather along the way. So in many ways I’m just gathering the poems I love and hoping to hand that seductive mix tape to a friend who might listen.
It’s a variation of that John Donne quote: “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.” And if writing is really an intense form of reading, then perhaps readers also translate chapters into better languages.
Rumpus: Do you have any fantasy anthologies you dream about making, apart from this one? (I have always wanted to edit an anthology of introductions, translator’s notes, and other front matter . . . )
Wiegers: I love your idea for an anthology of translator’s notes. I’d really geek out on that. I also admired your piece on Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and it got me to thinking about an anthology where I’d invite poets to do a similar treatment, on a single poem. We have a couple of great anthologies forthcoming, including Personal Best edited by Carl Phillips and Erin Belieu, wherein they invited poets to write about each of their own favorite poems.
I will always be a book person, but I think my fantasy anthology would be something that somehow enters physical space. Years ago I was asked to curate the poems to be featured around the new Gates Foundation in Seattle. I had a blast thinking into that and begged them to not just set poems into concrete. For example, their central courtyard is a water garden that highlights water conservation efforts: all rainfall is collected from the headquarters buildings. I imagined a drinking fountain nearby and when you pushed the button, you’d hear something like Philip Larkin’s poem “Water” (“If I were called in/ To construct a religion/ I should make use of water…”). I imagined a listening hood in a sunny part of the garden, with a solar powered audio speaker where you could hear Mary Ruefle reading “Kiss of the Sun.” Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” could be posted by the metal detectors. The possibilities are endless. That would be my fantasy anthology. Unfortunately, my ideas were invited too late in the building and design process and they went with aluminum letters set in concrete around the periphery. Very nice but static—apart from the fact that many were pried out and stolen.
Rumpus: You write in your introduction that this selection was a collective effort, including recommendations from Copper Canyon poets, staff, board members, donors, and others, and that “their stories and their love of a particular poem are at the heart of Copper Canyon Press.” The “love of a particular poem” is so important to me—I find it very hard to name a favorite book or favorite author, but I think I’ve always had a favorite poem, and I can become obsessed with a single poem for a while in the way one gets obsessed with a song and it’s always in your head. How do anthologies encourage these kinds of connections with particular poems?
Wiegers: In my favorite anthologies I am often surprised by the unexpected choices. I also find that sometimes one poem will help me understand another poem. Sometimes we rediscover poems we may have missed the first time around, and the beauty of an anthology is that it is asking the reader to pay attention in a new way.
If I can give you an odd example, I recently saw an exhibit where Joan Mitchell’s paintings were hung side by side with Monet’s later paintings. I came from a pretty middle-class suburban family of canned vegetables, church Sundays, and little art. The first art exhibit I remember seeing was when my mom took us to see Monet’s blockbuster “Years at Giverny.” As I aged, I started recognizing reproductions of those paintings everywhere, in commercial settings devoid of wonder. I eventually turned them into what became for me my own library of cliched art. But seeing them in person again decades later, paired alongside Joan Mitchell’s dynamic, emotion-filled and highly skilled paintings, I regained an appreciation for Monet. I came in knowing I’d see the Water Lilies and his garden paintings—but I don’t know that I’d ever seen Monet’s “Nymphéas.” I fell in love, and it was that unexpected joining of the two—the work of a visionary curator—that helped me see something new and be dazzled by it. Anthologies shouldn’t be a place where poems go to ossify in the canon, and my hope is that they can be a way to open up similar experiences.
I enjoy seeing a poem through other eyes. So, I started with the idea of asking people to say something about why they chose a particular poem. Ultimately, with such a large response from readers, we recognized we couldn’t include everything in A House Called Tomorrow, but I wanted a little bit of that ethos.
Rumpus: What poem was suggested most often?
Wiegers: There were a number of repeated poems—like Taha Muhammad Ali’s “Twigs,” WS Merwin’s “Rain Light” and “Place,” Jericho Brown’s “Duplex”—but I wrestled more with repeated poets than repeated poems. We had a surprising number of Anna Swir fans, alongside Ellen Bass, June Jordan and Ted Kooser, but the poems were different from reader to reader. I’d expect to see some of these names, but I loved seeing recommendations from books I’d worried had become forgotten. Popularity has questionable limitations, and I was committed to greater inclusion—this was never meant to be “Michael’s favorite poems,” nor a popularity contest.
Rumpus: You also write about the personal memories you associate with so much of this work and with the authors themselves. I think a lot about the importance of friendship to poetry. I find schools very meaningful, collectives that gather in time and space, circles of influence; I think it can be difficult to know how to read a set of poems if you don’t have a sense of their context, who the poet is in conversation with, and even what their voice sounds like. I also love poems that mention other poets, like Merwin’s poem on Berryman included here. (Another anthology I spent time with recently, included several poems by Du Fu about Li Bai, which I found so touching—these Tang Dynasty poets hanging out with each other, writing poems for each other, just like us!) How do you think about this social aspect of poetry that presses and anthologies can nurture and illuminate?
Wiegers: I don’t believe we come to nor travel through poetry alone. And yet I value independence in poetry. Rather than “social” I would instead encourage the word “communal”; the former sounds a little more performative and exclusive to my ear than does the latter, which sounds more like an invitation. And while friendship is an important part of poetry, without context it’s too easy to fall into the traps of nepotism and name-dropping—resulting in an insularity that minimizes the reader. When a poet is in conversation with another poet (or poem) it can feel exclusive, so I’m often interested in how the conversation might move into a communal space, without losing the intimacy of that friendship. I personally love such moments and want to share the wonder they create in me as a reader, and as a publisher my hope is that the reader might feel invited to partake in that space.
That said, I wouldn’t want to undermine the beauty of intimacy by explaining away the moment of the poem. For example, in that “Berryman” poem by Merwin we can all imagine crazy mentors and momentous occasions in our learning. Merwin shares his experience with Berryman in a very inviting way. Or even better, I think of Hayden Carruth’s beautiful poem for Adrienne Rich, “California,” where he’s sitting in her kitchen. The basis of the conversation is centuries old, much like that between Du Fu and Li Bai. Carruth places me in the room with him and Adrienne, in the conversation of her poems, and suddenly I feel I’m there with them. It’s thrilling to be sitting at that table.
One of the many things that I love about books is that they begin and end in solitude, but as I said before, I don’t believe we get to poems alone. As an editor, I feel it’s part of my job to offer context, to help gain entry to some intimate spaces—to help readers not feel alone within the poem. At times I may feel compelled to remind poets that their work is getting too chummy, and perhaps they should consider inviting others into the conversation. The friendship that I establish with poets enables those interactions.
Consider that during the editing of Garden Time, with his wife very ill, and his blindness sealed, Merwin asked me to come to his home and read through his poems with him. He wanted someone—a friend with a common purpose—to be a part of the making of his book. The twenty-year-old me would have found it impossible to imagine myself years later sitting on Merwin’s lanai on Maui—with all the mosquitoes going after me while ignoring him—reading his poems aloud to him, and asking about different choices in his book.
So yes, friendship is an important element, and personally many of the authors I’ve worked with have become dear friends. I want to tell you about every poet I get to work with. Through that work I’m often engaging with poets at a moment when they might be at their most vulnerable—and that’s an incredible gift for any editor. I don’t want to hoard it.
And while I hope to be aware and mindful on behalf of a poet who may be uncertain about their book, I’m also inhabiting my own vulnerability in these moments, repeatedly admitting that I’m confused or ignorant in front of something they’ve written. We end up engaging around a shared desire or concern, and it’s no surprise that friendships emerge. Anecdotally, my daughter, who grew up with poets passing through the house, and knows quite a number of poets, once dryly said something like “you know everyone in the poetry world” and I wisecracked my response with “it’s a pretty small world.” But it’s not. Poets make the world huge.
Rumpus: Copper Canyon did an anthology on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary as well. Apart from just including more recent work, how did you want this anthology to feel different?
Wiegers: I was part of editing that book, although not as the Editor. It was a compelling illustration of Sam Hamill’s vision, and an important book for me as a young editor. Through the process of gathering the poems, typing them, researching and also editing Sam’s work, I learned about the list and about the relationships at its heart. But it also presented a limited history of the press, and as time passed, I wasn’t convinced that that book was an accurate representation of Copper Canyon. I learned about other founders, and I learned that some of the myths weren’t entirely accurate. So in addition to showing how the Press has evolved, I also hoped to acknowledge the many intelligences that inform an independent publisher. I wanted to build an anthology that might transcend its editor by foregrounding the poets and other contributors along the way. I also wanted to show how the aesthetics of the press have changed, how we have become more representative of and more inviting to a more diverse readership.
Rumpus: A House Called Tomorrow is organized by decade. What did you notice about the poems as you moved through time? What themes and styles and forms emerged as indicative of their times, for you? (I felt the earliest poems in the book had the strongest bent toward nature.) Did working on this book give you a sense of the whole era, some spirit of the past fifty years?
Wiegers: The first thing I would notice over the past fifty years is how much we’ve grown, and how that growth was done in order to allow a more expansive view of poetry. We believe that a publisher is only as strong as its backlist, and that all those older books are paying it forward for the next generation. They brought us to the dance. The earliest books are very much out of a West Coast aesthetic tradition: They tend to focus on the landscape (as opposed to ecopoetics or environmentalism as currently seen) and look somewhat across the Pacific toward Asia for influence, as much as they look across the Atlantic toward Europe. Those early books drew me and others to the press. However, if a publisher relies entirely upon its backlist, publishing only the poets who were friends of the editors or previously successful in the marketplace, it will ossify and become irrelevant as a carrier of culture. Just look at those first twenty-five years: We’d published something like ten women and even fewer writers of color. That’s just unacceptable. I’ve wanted to grow our list so that we could support poets we’ve published previously, while also bringing new poets into the mix. I’m proud of the changes that we’ve made to create a list that is more inclusive and reflective of that great universal voice Carruth talked about in his anthology.
My hope is that during my tenure the Copper Canyon list will be hard to define but easy to recognize, that it will resist expectations, and will continue to make space for established, experienced voices alongside new poets. I hope that the books won’t be for everyone, but that anyone can find books they love.
Rumpus: There are a number of poems about poetry in here. Just to reference a few: James Laughlin’s “I Know How Every Poet” (from your anthology of poems about poetry!). Hayden Carruth’s “The Impossible Indispensability of the Ars Poetica” (“A poem is not an expression, nor is it an object. Yet it / somewhat partakes of both”). Brenda Shaughnessy’s “A Poem’s Poem.” Ruth Stone’s “Always on the Train” (“If you think about it, it turns into words”). “The Poem She Didn’t Write” by Olena K. Davis. “Bridge” by Jim Harrison (which doesn’t mention poetry, but I read it as a metaphor for a body of work). Carruth (who I think of somewhat as this book’s spirit guide) writes that “what a poem is / Is never to be known”—but is an anthology always somewhat an implicit argument for what a poem should be or can be?
Wiegers: Oh! You’ve spotted one of my editorial tics! I do love a good poem that looks at why we do what we do. I hope that’s not a weakness. I’m going to paraphrase Marvin Bell who claimed that every poem is an ars poetica. I agree with that and would answer your question by saying that I think every poem is an implicit argument for what a poem should or can be. Anthology editors are strap hangers on the commuter line toward where those poems are going.
Rumpus: Do you have a favorite poem in this anthology, or is that a cruel thing to ask? Do you have a favorite poem that’s not in this anthology?
Wiegers: I think you have already answered that first question, and as soon as I confirm how important Carruth’s “The Impossible Indispensability of the Ars Poetica” is to me, I’ll think about others Taggart’s “Magdalene Poem”? C.D. Wright’s “Deepstep Come Shining”? God, I miss her. Any number of Merwin poems qualify. Yes, it’s a cruelty.
As for favorite poems not in the anthology? That’s the great thing: I know they are out there waiting to be found. I mean, read Natalie Eilbert’s new book! Jaswinder Bolina’s English as a Second Language [forthcoming, 2023] is extraordinary. Or Jorie’s To 2040 breaks my expanding heart. They made it into the anthology and give me confidence that others will join them.
Photo by Miriam Berkley