Thursday, September 21, 2006

Rites of Fall: The Best American Poetry 2006

Well, there is a crispness in the air, rustling like fresh pages in a poetry anthology. Of course, poetry anthologies have been stocked in libraries and bookshops since, well, I'm guessing the 19th century. There is one institution, however, that is entering its 19th year (and 20th volume, if you count a "Best of..." volume from the first 10 years).

The series is called, as one might guess, is The Best American Poetry. Want more details? Series Editor David Lehman's series webpage is here. This year's edition is edited by Billy Collins.

This is actually a two-part post. Let me talk about the series and my history with it. In 1995, as a poet and aspiring book collector, I picked up a copy of Grand Passion: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond. This was an anthology of local L.A. poets and the copy I found, at a Barnes & Noble in the Westwood Pavillion, was signed by a dozen or so of the book's contributors.

As I came to appreciate signed books, and time went by, I found myself in New York City. That first Fall in the Big Apple, I saw a listing for a reading to plug the Best American Poetry 1997 at the Borders on Park Avenue. It was November 3, 1997. Four poets were scheduled to read: I attended and three poets showed: Billy Collins, Don Hymans, and Charlie Smith. I have no recall as to who the 4th poet was. It may have been Lehman or the Guest Editor James Tate. Hymans and Smith I recall, and Hymans signed his page with the note "First Autograph," so it was memorable for both of us. Either way, my collection of the BAP (as I affectionately call it) began.
Over the next several years, I began collecting the volumes in earnest, all the while collecting signatures in the anthologies from this series, as well as a few others. I could always rely on a Fall BAP reading to get a big pop of 6-10 autographs in one night. My collection was "completed" in 1998. Here's an e-mail I wrote to a book friend in California:


Located the elusive copy of Best American Poetry 1988! And It's

Bad news: It's 60 $

Good news: It's worth that, it's a
review copy, and it's already
signed by [John] Ashbery, [Robert] Hass, and
[James] Tate!

Now, trying to figure out what to sell to get the $ for the


Hubert replied:

Dear Bill:

Congratulations on finding 1988. That will be the best sixty bucks you
ever spend, because the book is not only worth that in itself, but it's
worth it many times over because it completes your set. You certainly
have something that no one else in the country has. I bet few people
have the run, and certainly no one has the signatures in them that you
have, a very unique set you've created.

I guess 1988 probably belonged to someone who lost heart, a dilettante
bookdealer without the real fire in the belly that you've had, someone
who would let a guy like Richard Howard or Adrienne Rich make him run
off with his tail between his legs. A guy who would not go to an event
because he only had the anthology....

Once 1988 was in hand (and Hubert was right about its value), the game was on. Each year, I purchase the hardcover edition, which is issued in much smaller numbers than the trade paperbacks, and each year they get signed. It is a maddening, self-perpetuating, addictive hobby, but it's cheaper and less destructive than other hobbies and/or vices.

My '88 edition now has 23 signatures, that '97 volume has 22. The "luckiest" volume is the '88 edition, which boasts a whopping 34 autographs (or 44% of the available contributors).

What about the poetry inside it? Who contributed? Don't you even care about the poems?

All valid questions, and all will be answered. In part 2 tomorrow. For tonight is the annual ritual, The Best American Poetry 2006 launch at the New School.

Can't wait? Until them, reminisce with my retelling of last year's reading, here.

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