I spoke to Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, editor of many anthologies, and a New Zealander in Edinburgh, about compiling anthologies in the shadow of Project Gutenberg and her work at the SPL.
TeleRead: What are the responsibilities, and value, of an anthologist in the Internet era, when samples and selected works are in principle always available everywhere?
Robyn Marsack: The value of an anthologist is perhaps even greater in the Internet era than previously, just because samples and selections are more widely available. We’re swamped! Anthologies usually have an agenda and/or come from a trusted source. If you pick up the ‘Penguin Anthology of…’ or—dare I say it—an anthology from the SPL, then I think it carries a quality mark: the choice has been thoughtfully made; the texts are accurate (which they’re often not on the Internet); and due acknowledgment has been paid to authors and publishers (ditto). The value of anthologies such as Neil Astley’s “Staying Alive” or Michael Schmidt’s “New Poetries” is that they reflect the personal taste of very well-read editors – you mightn’t like all of their choices, but you know they’ve done a huge amount of work on your behalf, sifting through dozens of poems.
TR: What kind of role do you think the SPL’s Best Scottish Poems online selection has?
RM: Best Scottish Poems online also reflects individual editors’ tastes, it’s by no means an ‘institutional’ choice, and that’s part of its interest. If you don’t read much contemporary Scottish poetry, it provides a good introduction—for readers at home or abroad. It’s one of the ways the SPL can support Scottish poets, by supplying a springboard—we hope—for readers to explore their work further. And at a time when poets find it difficult to get published, BSP expands the circulation of work that has appeared in pamphlets and magazines. We think that the comments, by the poets and editors, make the format reader-friendly. And we’re adding recordings of the poets reading, which is a welcome new aspect of BSP.
RM: I’ve lived in Scotland for over 25 years, and I’ve seen a huge expansion in the public presence of literature—book festivals, performances, poetry groups; in the work of organizations such as Scottish Book trust and of course the SPL itself. I think there’s a marvellously rich mix of poetry, fiction and non-fiction coming from Scottish writers. I suppose the striking difference from New Zealand is the visibility of indigenous publishers. In New Zealand I can think of two strong poetry lists from university presses, and several other poetry publishers, promoted with more confidence than I think is apparent in Scotland. The national book awards, the Prime Minister’s awards, the work of the Arts foundation all seem to me admirable facets of literary support and promotion in New Zealand. Of course NZ doesn’t have a large neighbour across the border, which makes for a different book-ecology.
TR: What is the SPL doing through social and digital media (including e-books) to further its mission?
RM: After we re-launched our website in 2012, we made social media central to our mission to bring people and poems together. Our Twitter following grows steadily, people love downloading our poetry-quote posters and our podcasts—all those things work very well for us. We’re working in a partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage to highlight poems about landscape via their website, and our current ‘Walking with Poets’ project features a blog that enables people who can’t go to various botanic gardens to at least enjoy the experience online, sharing poets’ views of the world of plants and trees. Of course the gift of the paper sculptures was a fantastic online story that has brought the SPL to people’s attention in a way that wouldn’t have been possible offline—visitors from Germany, Finland, America, Australia have all made a bee-line for the SPL on the strength of that irresistibly generous gift. We haven’t yet produced an e-book, and part of the reason is the expense of copyright permissions—which indeed is a consideration in all anthology-making. But we will continue to consider e-books and poetry apps, and we’re working on digitising our audio holdings and adding more recordings to the website.