For years, I've enjoyed reading the Pushcart Prize Best of the Small Presses anthology, so was tickled to come across the 37th edition. While Bill Henderson's project boosts of its grass-roots authenticity, it's gained over the years some institutional pomposity; the collection is slickly published, along with the volume number in Roman numerals, à la the Super Bowl. Henderson's introduction espousing the literary virtues of the pieces gleaned from the nation's small publishing entrepreneurs has a smug, self-congratulatory quality.
Indeed, the contents are uneven, especially the poetry, chosen by Bob Hicok and Maxine Kumin. Hicok and Kumin talk like battle heroes of choosing from hundreds and hundreds of poems, which is scary, since the poems I've encountered so far strike me as amateurish, overwrought, poorly considered, and unfinished. A typically sentimental and banal Ted Kooser poem made the most of an impression. Henderson points to a poem by a fourth grader. Perhaps it will raise the intellectual and artistic level.
On the prose side, the most notable piece so far is one of Marilynne Robinson's mind-stretching essays, "On Beauty." The late Harry Crews shows the best of his macho style with a memoir fragment. I started but grew bored with a short story by Karen Russell, the new it girl of short stories a few months ago. I've liked Laura Kasischke's poems, but her short story reprinted in the anthology, "The Barge," strikes me as something a talented high school girl would produce. While discovering some new voices, the anthology has its share of familiar names such as Joyce Carol Oates, Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Andrew Huggins, and Adam Zagajewski.
I'll keep browsing; surely a jewel or two will be found.