Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Editors Catherine Barnett and Tiphanie Yanique: Another English: Anglophone Poems from Around the World

The editors of this anthology, Another English, describe it as “a collection of varied expressions of English.” All the poets included write in English but hail from outside the United States and the United Kingdom. Really, it’s more like seven anthologies, organized geographically, each curated by a different editor: Ghana (Kwame Dawes), the Caribbean (Ishion Hutchinson), South Africa (Rustum Kozain), Australia (Les Murray), New Zealand (Hinemoana Baker), India (Sudeep Sen), and Canada (Todd Swift). Each mini-anthology contains only about fifteen poems (with the exception of the Caribbean, twice as long), and since each selection reflects its curator’s own parameters of compilation, all of them are quite different.

Kozain’s South Africa section braids the work of several poets, on topics ranging from an erotic encounter to a lynching. Hutchinson recruits a team of poets to find poems from the many nations that make up the Caribbean, turning his section into a mini-mini-anthology. And so on. Besides collecting poems, each curator also provides the full apparatus of anthologizing: a quarter of the book is made up of curator introductions, biographical sketches, brief commentaries on individual poems, and resources for further reading.

Almost all of the poets represented here are living and while a few names will pop out to American readers—Margaret Atwood, Derek Walcott, Vikram Seth—the true value of this anthology is found in the names we don’t recognize immediately. It’s these new names that make the anthology worthwhile. Take, for example, Chris van Wyk’s “In Detention”:

He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

Why give give away a few precious slots to such already well-known names? And since each section is so frustratingly brief, why put them all together in one volume where each nation/region only gets a handful of poems? Why not a full anthology for each country: an anthology of Canadian anglophone poetry? a Caribbean one? an Indian one? In fact, there are such anthologies for several of these countries. (Sen alone has edited no less than two volumes of Indian poets in English.) Sometimes it can feel like a banquet of hors d'oeuvres.

And for that matter, why only these few countries? Plenty of other nations have a heritage of English-language literature. Another English is part of the Poets in the World Series sponsored by the Harriet Monroe Institute of the Poetry Foundation, and the editors are hopeful that there will be further volumes in this series, adding Nigeria, Pakistan, and Papua New Guinea. In the introduction, the editors are careful to address the history of English as a language of colonization. As are the poets: “to market to market / to buy a new tongue” (Marion Bethel’s “from In the Marketplace”). But the notion of English as the current medium of literary globalism receives less critique, and is even embraced.

With so many editors in the room—by my count at least thirteen were involved in the decision-making—it’s worth asking what brings such a diverse crowd together in the first place. Most of the curators have some significant connection to the American literary world. They’ve done MFAs in the US, published in journals here, taught at universities here. You might say this book represents the globalization of English-language literature after the fashion of the American creative-writing complex. I don’t know that that’s a bad thing—there’s a lot to be said for the American system, and why not have those most familiar with it mediate toward it? But sometimes it can feel like a half-measure. If diversity is what we’re going for, would it be so hard just to pick up some translations?

That’s not the point of Another English, though. At the end of the day what makes the anthology worth reading is the friction between English vernaculars, the juxtapositions of dialect, the opportunity to see on a global scale the unbounded variety of the English language. Where else can you find New Zealander verse rubbing shoulders with South African? From Tim Coverdale’s “Woodwind” (“My didjeridoo Nibelungenlied / wallows brooding as Wagner’s did”) to the Jamaican slurs in Dawes' “Yap,” there’s plenty of novelty. This is a poetics interested in how English moves in the world, as equally ready to mock—

My friend from Guyana
was asked in Philadelphia
if she was from “Iguana”
(Christian Campbell's “Iguana”) as to take trenchant inspiration—
There has been writing for ten days now,
unabated. People are anxious, fed up.
(Amit Chaudhuri’s “The Writers: On constantly mishearing ‘rioting’ as ‘writing’ on the BBC”). The fun thing here is not so much who made it in or who's representative; it's the chance to watch a conversation on a global scale.

Editors Catherine Barnett and Tiphanie Yanique
Another English: Anglophone Poems from Around the World
Tupelo Press, 2014