Fiona Waters: What Exactly is an Anthologist?

Every now and again I am asked ‘What exactly is an anthologist?’ Followed rapidly by ‘Any fool can collect a pile of poems.’ Well yes, but would that make an anthology, or would it just remain a random collection of poems?  Even more dispiriting was the poet, who will remain anonymous, she muttered sadly, who said (in public) that I couldn’t be any kind of a good anthologist because I didn’t write poetry myself. I was completely taken aback as I had never questioned my credentials to be an anthologist, but the wonderful John Mole rode to my defence with ‘You don’t have to be a carpenter to appreciate a Chippendale chair.’ Just so.

The best anthologists have many skills. You need the ability to put together a collection that has plenty which is new and will intrigue and stimulate, as well as enough of the old favourites to make the browser feel comfortable, but is not a mere rehash of collections already out there. It is a constant quest to find that which is new, not only just-written new but also newly discovered by the anthologist. (And that never stops however widely read the anthologist is.) A true sense of one poem leading into another is required, either by association of subject or thought, but also the bravery to inject a powerful poem that will whack the reader in the solar plexus.

I AM THE SEED THAT GREW THE TREE, A nature poem for every day of the year, selected by Fiona Waters, Illustrated by Fran Preston-Gannon

A real knowledge of diverse poetry from many cultures and a span of the classic verses from centuries back. The poems can be beautiful, heart rending, hilarious, memorable, and long or short. And when talking about a children’s anthology, the anthologist should have the courage to include that which might be considered ‘too challenging’ for a child. I have never let any such demarcation get in the way of offering a poem that sings to the soul. All children lack is experience, otherwise they have all the emotions, feelings and passion that so called grown- ups possess.

Embarking on a new anthology elicits a real sense of adventure, where shall I start? When Nosy Crow asked me to compile a new collection of animal poems to follow I am the Seed that Grew the Tree, my initial reaction was such delight, which was almost immediately replaced by a great sense of the enormity of the task. I knew there were plenty of poems about lions and tigers, giraffes and kangaroos, penguins and owls but what about anteaters or porcupines, snails or seahorses, and, of course, the pangolin? But my anxiety was soon washed away, they were all there, queuing up to be included. The permission quest was, as ever, fraught with seemingly insurmountable convolutions but that in itself is part of the thrill of the chase.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! An animal poem for every day of the year, selected by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup

Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright was my biggest undertaking to date but I had the wonderful Nosy Crow team by my side, particularly the exceptional and poetry loving Louise Bolongaro. That is another essential for a good anthologist – a supportive and encouraging publisher. I have been greatly aided and guided by Su Swallow and Gaby Morgan, both knowledgeable poetry lovers, in other collections. And, of course, Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright would only be half the great beast it is without the incomparable Britta Teckentrup. Her illustrations are so atmospheric and fill the page with vibrant subtlety.  

My own love of poetry stemmed from an early spell-binding encounter. I must have been about 7 when I heard Gabriel Woolf reading The Lady of Shalott and I was hooked for life. Not long ago I rediscovered a faded exercise book filled with my favourite poems all written out in my best copperplate. My first anthology? I like to think so.

Fiona Waters

During her fifty-two years in the world of books, Edinburgh-born Fiona Waters has worn many hats. From John Smith’s Booksellers in Glasgow, she moved to Cambridge to run Heffers Children’s Bookshop for eight years before going to join The Bodley Head. Her last move took her to Dorset where she was the Editorial Director of Troubadour, then the largest independent Book Fair Company in the United Kingdom. She is renowned in the world of children’s books for her passion and enthusiasm, and her encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s poetry.