The arrival of ‘proofs’ for an author is a sharpsweet moment. Sweet in that it’s exciting – the labour of years coming to fruition. Sharp in that it means the writer is on the verge of letting go, it’s no longer his or her baby. Soon it will be out there in the market-place subject to the whims of readers, reviewers and the recession.
Yesterday I received the proofs of my anthology ‘These I Have Loved’. It is a selection of a hundred New Zealand poems that I’ve enjoyed over the years. There are a couple I learnt at school. Several I’ve taught. Lots I’ve anthologised. Some I’ve heard the poet read. Others I have read in the poet’s own or other collection that have to the best of my knowledge never been anthologised.. There is one previously unpublished.
As I say in my introduction it’s a moveable feast. Sooner or later the anthologist has to say ‘curtain call’. This final selection goes to the publisher, the point of no return has been passed. I anticipated some rejections from the poets or their estates. I am delighted there were none though I’ve regrets that one or two emergencies I’d lined up remain on the sidelines.
The number one hundred was arbitrary. Rationale for choice was needed. My enjoyment was crucial. There are some great poems. There isn’t a bad poem. I admit the inclusion of more than several for idiosyncratic reasons. For example, when I was young when my adults went to town (Christchurch) they often brought saveloys home. In a steady diet of farm mutton – people ask wasn’t it monotonous; at the time it wasn’t, merely normal – they were a colourful change. Elizabeth Smither has a poem about going to the butcher’s and ordering quite a large amount of meat, ‘and just casually, like childhood, a saveloy.’ She’ll probably be surprised, indeed horrified, at this choice – I have included others of hers – but in context it’s well-entitled to be included. For childhood’s sake!
Likewise when I was a student in Dunedin I walked past Frame’s upside-down kea daily. I remember being awe-struck when I saw Kampala the elephant close-up in Wellington zoo so Louis Johnson’s poem reminded me of that moment.. Curnow’s moa skeletons in the Canterbury museum were part of my childhood. I give reasons for my selection of each poem so this anthology is a unique mixture of memoir and poetry.
Another arbitrary decision was to not abridge larger poems. Baughan, Stead, Wedde, Bornholt all have long poems I like very much. Excerpts do not do justice to the overall poem. So they’ve been left out. Also not considered were any poems that I'd included in my recent garden anthology ‘The Earth’s Deep Breathing.’ This means I’m light on Bethell for she is our garden poet par excellence. But that very choice represents the freedom of this selection. There was no external standard of excellence or reference except my own preference and judgement.
So begins the laborious task of final checking. It’s like the dress rehearsal of a play – the last chance to get things as near right as possible. The good thing about a quick flick through is that I am happy with my selection. That’s satisfactory. If I find a poem I like I want to share it. That’s why I enjoyed teaching poetry I think. As the time of closure I was at ease with my selection. I still am. And I wish I could be in the classroom to use it – to sell my love for the craft.