Monday, September 29, 2008

The Savage Anthologists, biting off more salsa and chips than they can chew

While I was dipping into French and Francophone poetry at the NYPL, change was afoot at my day job. One day our editorial team was told that Cats magazine was shut down and that we were being assigned DogWorld magazine instead. (OK, I’ll admit that I found this mostly hilarious, although my poor boss was beside herself.) But being the efficient professionals that we were, in a matter of months we turned what had been a fuddy-duddy publication partial to 5-part dry-as-a-bone articles on canine genetics into a snappier (as you can see, in the pet writing world, the puns are endless) read.

But alas, all that didn’t prevent DogWorld from quickly being sold to a company way out in California. And we wanted to stay in NYC. Thus, come spring 2002, I was out of a job. Joy! This meant I could spend entire days in the Wertheim Room at the NYPL, reading French poetry, courtesy of the wonder (alas, all too evanescent) that is unemployment.

And the Wertheim room, it was like how one romanticizes what monks’ cells must have been like—the long wood tables, the silence, the flirting. People often slept in their chair, sometimes tilted back, or with their head on their book or computer. In the absence of words, human interaction had a sort of heightened power, like how silent movie stars have an extra puissance. Olivier, Kristin and I all felt like we were falling in love with someone in the Wertheim. But outside the heavy wooden door, if we happened actually to talk to object of our affection, the illusion would instantly dissipate. As I write this, I can’t even remember the person I was interested in the least, or even if he or she was a man or woman. It was like being in love with a soap bubble.

Cosi was our library mess hall across 42nd St.—we would help ourselves to their free bits of bread in a bowl, and then race back to the library, chancing traffic. One time Olivier and Kristin ran across to meet me—it was a drizzly day and their long raincoats flew back and suddenly I had a vision of a great “author photo” for our anthology, obviously some sort of desire to pin the moment in time. Our other hangout was Festival, a Mexican restaurant as unromantic as running across 42nd St. on a rainy day in a long coat is romantic. The margaritas were made of cleaning fluid and gasoline, but were cheap ($3.25 if I remember correctly), and the waitress was stunningly unfriendly. We always left her giant tips, and went there regularly for years, yet she never so much as twitched a lip in an upward direction when we came in ready for another round of watery salsa and stale chips. Olivier was at the time living around the corner and I think it became a kind of United States citizen’s test to get that waitress to say hello to him.

At our meetings, we’d hash out lists, lists, lists—crossing off dozens of poets when, as I understand now, we should have been honing our vision for the anthology. From the start, we were biting off way, way, way more than we could chew—we had chosen May 1968 to the present as our time frame (foolish, foolish! 40 years to be foolish within!) and basically the entire Earth as our geographic arena. This left aesthetics as any kind of narrowing criterion, and while we all liked each other enormously, we inevitably discovered that we had slightly different aesthetics, which we somehow avoided being able to articulate.

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