367 pages, $25
Review by Laura Kochman
In the year we have defined as 2015, I am reading and reviewing The Volta Book of Poets. It has emerged from The Volta, a website of/for/about/from contemporary poetry, named after the term for the place where a poem shifts. The Volta’s creator and the editor of this anthology, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, writes in his introduction about the thinking behind this collection—what it means to collect a group of work in one place, in this case a “constellation” that “embrace[s] that cacophony.” It’s clear from his introduction that The Volta Book of Poets seeks to present not a closed list of must-reads, but a field of work that, like language and identity, is ever-expanding.
What does it mean to anthologize? What does it mean to collect, and can one participate in collection without also creating a measurable total or an endpoint? This is Wilkinson’s implied question, and one that the writers in this anthology seem to be thinking through as well. For one thing, this is The Volta Book of Poets, not The Volta Book of Poems. This title is our entry, and so we begin with an act of resistance against definition. It is as difficult to define a mode of poetry encompassed here as it is to define a poet. We begin with this reminder to extrapolate, to read holistically and associatively. Each poet has provided a poetics statement, although they range widely—from Khadijah Queen’s more traditional explanation of poetic process to Anselm Berrigan’s three-word refusal: “No more poetics.” Some statements read like essays (Andrea Rexilius), some like poems (Evie Shockley). Poetics statements are common for anthologies, and they work well here, as expanders.
The number of writers—fifty—was chosen arbitrarily, and they are organized alphabetically by last name. Beginnings and endings are important, because they are borders, and especially so in an anthology that has asked us to resist compartmentalization, so: we begin with Rosa Alcalá’s reflection on voice-activated systems and their resistance to foreign accents, and end with Lynn Xu’s poem “Enemy of the Absolute.” The poets collected here understand that construction is what we have to work with—a constructed world and our constructed identities, constructed form on the page, the page itself which is a construction. Implicit in that term—which I, the constructor of this review, have chosen—is the potential for proliferation. An equation may be extrapolated, and so may an anthology. Alcalá begins:
I sometimes worry that the ways in which we define poetry and separate it into exclusionary camps is like creating a technology that recognizes only a few representative voices—or no voice at all—and can only accomplish a limited set of commands…What’s remarkable about poetry, however, is that it pushes you—if you are not trapped by the sound of your own voice—to go off road. The poet’s voice may activate the poem, but then the poem acquires, through this activation, it’s [sic] own voice.
We are asked to consider difference, multiplicity, variation, the unfamiliar—I think I could spin this list out forever. Much of the thinking in this anthology led me to reflect back on the varied nature of anthology itself, like these lines from TC Tolbert’s “On the Other Side of the Wall is a Bench”:
It always begins this way. To try to solidify one thing by wandering around in a field. To gather sticks. Trees are necessary. The field would be more accurately called a yard but yard implies boundaries, a fence. To place the sticks in any sort of geometrical configuration, to determine proximity simply by defining place, one need not have an understanding of physics, architecture, strength. One can simply pile the sticks.
Tolbert’s poem stems from gender identity and questions about violence in a transgender narrative, and so at the same time that I read an idea of the anthology here, I read the anthology back as an invitation to think about narrative and gender and identity. The Volta Book of Poets keeps turning back on itself, looking in and out and through. It leads me to consider anthology as voice activation system (Alcalá), border town (C.S. Giscombe), the archive (Harmony Holiday), speculative city (Cathy Park Hong), colony and/or hospital (Bhanu Khapil), traffic (Dawn Lundy Martin), “the body electric-chaired, charred, pepper-sprayed, bruise-hued, blackened” (Evie Shockley), a field (Tolbert), Sears (Dana Ward), a person named Lucy (Ronaldo V. Wilson). I could go on.
“Whose attending spirit holds me thus? // Whose shape-shifting wood // Thus tooled what // Kind of stew or meanness so,” asks Lynn Xu in the final poem. We could read this as an address to the anthology, of course, but also: to the term poet, the predetermined page, the brain of the reader, the alphabet that has determined that we are reading these pages last. Xu writes in her poetics statement, “Today it is still not clear what the poem wants. Determination to give poetry the highest value…renders the poet absurd. And yet, for whatever reason, a certain density remains…a hesitation which refuses to toss this brightness to the wind.” The anthology as a certain density. As, like the poets within it, a refusal to not attempt difficult things, to not speak about difficult subjects and questions without answers. If everything is constructed, then poets might as well be agents in that construction. The Volta Book of Poets hangs between these points, in that intermediate space where meaning is brimming.
Laura Kochman is the author of The Bone and the Body (BatCat Press, 2015) and Future Skirt (dancing girl press, 2013). She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama, and currently reads, writes, and feeds her cat in Philadelphia. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Quarterly West, Houseguest Magazine, TYPO, Sink Review, and others.