How to put together a poetry anthology
Ana Sampson, editor of She is Fierce: Brave, bold and beautiful poems by women, on the art of anthologising
It starts, as all writing should do, with reading. Read. Read until your eyes hurt. Read until you cry, note the page number, pull yourself together, and read some more.
My latest anthology gathers poetry by women from every era. There were names I had to include: Sappho, the Brontë sisters, Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou. I read their poems, looking for the ones that shouted out to me. Sometimes, I selected greatest hits – Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 has lost none of its power despite its familiarity – but sometimes I unearthed something that was new to me, and I hoped would be to readers, too.
My mission was to hear and share long unheard voices. General anthologies have tended to include only a handful of women, and always the same ones. I trawled libraries, including the superb National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre (it’s free to join, and they have an excellent e-lending service, kind, knowledgeable staff and a hand-operated stacks system I warmed to once I got the hang of it). I bought second hand books in shops and online, gratefully accepted bags of delights from my editor, devoured poetry publications and spent hours online. I lapped up recommendations.
I read thousands of new poems, adding to the mental stacks of poetry amassed editing five previous anthologies. I collected everything that I loved, like a magpie. Single-handedly, I boosted the profits of Britain’s Post-it manufacturers. My family forgot what the kitchen table looked like, and tripped over books in every room. My apologetic intimacy with the postman deepened. And then, at some point, I had enough to fill three anthologies.
Thank goodness for technological advances that allowed me to avoid carrying a houseful of books to the nearest photocopier! An app called Tiny Scanner enabled me to turn pages into printable PDFs using my phone. I turned my houseful of post-it noted books into towering stacks of paper, and shut myself in a room with them.
Initially, I’d planned a chronological overview of women’s poetry from the ancient world to the present day. Problems with this approach quickly presented themselves, though. It was hard to know when to move from one period to the next, since many poets’ work spanned eras, and the brilliant explosion of female voices in recent decades would lead to those chapters dwarfing earlier ones. Instead, I gathered poems thematically. Some themes disappeared and others merged, and the book’s skeleton went through a few metamorphoses. Then it was time to start cutting.
I lost poems I loved. The book didn’t need nine poems about early motherhood so, although these verses especially moved me as the parent of young children, I had to choose the most essential – ones that said things I had never heard said, and ones that said different things from the others I selected. It was important to showcase a range of voices from different eras and places, and I didn’t want too many poems by the same writers. As the book was aimed at a readership aged twelve upwards, poems with swearing or very adult themes didn’t fit. It was agonising.
When I had a fairly final list – although later substitutions were made when permissions couldn’t be cleared, or another unmissable gem turned up – I closeted myself with each chapter in turn. I read the poems – silently and out loud, as I hope readers will do – and shuffled the order until the sections flowed, with enough variety to keep readers interested if they wanted to read cover to cover (although I imagine almost nobody will). Some themes suggested an order – Friendship opens with schoolyard playmates, and closes celebrating life-long platonic loves – but in others, poems fell into clusters and I had to navigate from one group (on war, or body image, or infidelity) to the next.
Finally, I wrote chapter openings, trying to draw together the disparate threads each section embraced. In these and the introduction I attempted to say something about the particular circumstances of female writers: how their social, political, economic and educational freedoms had been curtailed through many of the centuries covered. I researched and wrote brief biographies of each of them, and was awed by their resilience and determination. Many carved out time to write in defiance of disapproving husbands, dismissive editors, enormous families, vicious critics or society’s censure. They wrote. And – now – I hope they will be read.
She is Fierce: Brave, bold and beautiful poems by women is published by Macmillan Children's Books, £12.99
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