Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On choosing works for an anthology

I've helped put together, or myself put together, a number of anthologies of prose and poetry from the Caribbean. None of these books was anywhere near seven hundred pages long, but size isn't really so much to the point, since one of the things one often has to do when one doesn't have lots and lots of pages is prune one's choices, and that is never an easy task. Like Jane Urquhart, I've found the task of compiling collections pleasurable because one inevitably reads wonderful work. My qualifications to select poetry and prose from the Caribbean are that I write both, I've read this body of work all my life long, and I've done some research and written critically on it as well. In addition, in three of the four anthologies I've described, I have worked as a co-compiler. This is a wonderful safeguard. As we say in Jamaica, "Two head better than one, even if one is a goat head!" It was necessary, in the case of most of these collections, to read a sizable body of work before making the final selections. In every case, there was an introduction that described the compiling task and explained why one had chosen what one had chosen. Sometimes the choice of works is limited by a parameter of time, say, for instance, poems written by Jamaican women born in the first half of the twentieth century, or poems written by Jamaicans since the country gained independence. Sometimes one chooses to present fewer writers so that one is able to showcase more of the individual writers' works. One explains that as well, and the basis according to which one selected the writers who were chosen. Sometimes one attempts to cover a specific geographic area, or the contributions of people of a particular ethnicity or religious or political persuasion. It's only polite to explain oneself, so that the reader faced with a choice of anthologies can know what she's yours contains. Certainly it wouldn't occur to me to compile the short stories of Sri Lankan writers or the poetry of Nigerians. I simply don't know enough about ieither body of work. Were I to become very, very famous, I might accept a commission to choose a body of Canadian short stories simply on the simple basis that I like them. And that would probably be fine – and I would know that I have to settle down and read for about five years before I could even begin to choose!

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