David Lehman series ed., Dana Gioia, guest ed., The Best American Poetry, 2018, (Best American Poetry Series) Scribner Poetry, 2018.
My editorial method was simple and unoriginal. For twelve months (starting October 2016) I spent two or three hours each day reading new poetry. I read through every journal I could find as well as dozens of online journals. I bought piles of unfamiliar small magazines and subscribed to new journals. I read every issue of every literary magazine in my university's large periodical room. When I traveled, I brought along a separate bag of journals to read on the plane or in the hotel room. Meanwhile the series editor sent me weekly packets of poems that had caught his attention. I initially wondered if David Lehman might want to press his suggestions. He is a persuasive advocate for the poetry he loves. Lehman, however, gave me complete editorial autonomy. I told no one outside my family that I had taken on the assignment. I didn't want to be lobbied by poet friends and acquaintances.
I'm not sure how many thousands of poems I read. I surely broke the five-digit mark. Every time a poem grabbed my attention, I earmarked it or printed it out for rereading. My studio became a mountain range of periodicals, printouts, and photocopies. The most interesting part of the process was rereading and comparing the hundreds of poems that had made the first cut. Week after week I read and sorted the poems into three scientific categories -- Yes, No, Maybe. After much agonizing, I made the final selections.
This tale of extreme research raises a question: Why didn't the university library's large periodical room have more poetry journals? Actually, I can answer that one myself. Many years ago during a budget shortfall the library where I worked slashed periodical subscriptions. The poetry journals were the first to go. They weren't expensive -- we could have bought all of them for less than the cost of one science journal subscription. But library use statistics indicated that almost nobody ever read them.
One problem was, most literary journals weren't listed in any of our indexes. Nowadays, Project Muse indexes a few of the well-known poetry journals (most of them represented in this book according to an appended "List of Magazines where the Poems were First Published"). But there are also zillions of small-press poetry journals. In order to submit to them, the poet sends in a few poems with a small fee that presumably keeps the journal going. After a while, this process of fee-based submission becomes deeply discouraging. It feels like everyone submits poems but nobody reads.
Yet libraries are nonetheless doing a disservice by ignoring poetry. The mistake, I think, is trying to focus on "important" poetry. There are a few poets who are famous enough so that their books are likely to circulate (I'd say Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, etc... I doubt that Gioia particularly likes any of them). However, I'd argue that the most important poetry for librarians to collect is localized, written by the local community of writers (including at local institutions of higher education) but also (don't laugh) nature poetry. Gioia identifies an emerging trend of politically charged place-based poetics. He writes, "The nature poem had become the major vehicle for political meditation and protest. The bright innocence of Walt Whitman's American Eden has been overtaken by Robinson Jeffers's dark prophesy of spacious modern civilization."
While librarians were busy cutting poetry from our collections, the poetic form has re-emerged as an particularly important voice responding to the slow emergency of the Anthropocene. The Dark Mountain Project explicitly makes the Robinson Jeffers connection, and in Uncivilised Poetics (Dark Mounain10) the editors write "What's the point of poetry when the streets of Syria have been bombed beyond recognition? What's the point of poetry when the permafrost is melting? But poetry matters because it offers an alternative reality --it refuses the logical, reductionist, materialist aspects of industrial cult; aslant, it invites us to feel our way in the dark." If libraries want to capture this important voice, they are going to have to rediscover poetry.