Every year since its founding in 1976, Bill Henderson has published the annual Pushcart Prize anthology—short fiction, essays and poetry gleaned from independent presses and magazines. Beginning with Pushcart's 25th anniversary in 2001, the press (distributed by Norton) has been releasing compendiums that collect "the best of the best" in each category: The Pushcart Book of Short Stories and The Pushcart Book of Essays in 2002 and, this March, The Pushcart Book of Poetry.

"Small presses and journals are the lifeblood of poetry," said poet Joan Murray, who edited The Pushcart Book of Poetry, which collects 180 poems from 30 years of the Pushcart Prize. "When you consider that in the yearly poetry showcase Poets House puts on, over 90% of all the poetry included is published by independent and university presses, you start to see the essential role they play," said Rob Casper of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the Poetry Society of America.

The always wry Henderson, who still serves as the editor and publisher of the Pushcart Press, added, "Poetry never makes any money, but it's terrifically important to many people."

A Pushcart Prize is a much-coveted honor among literary writers. Acclaimed poet Heather McHugh, a contributor to the Book of Poetry, recalls "how gratifying it was to know that my work was esteemed by editors and readers. I'm not sure what it does for a poet's 'career'—poets have to be in it for hell-bent love, nothing else—but surely in all forms of irrepressible love, it's consoling to hear something kind in return for what the heart pours out."

Despite the enthusiasm for the annual volumes and first two compendiums, The Pushcart Book of Poetryalmost didn't happen. After the first two best-ofs appeared, Murray asked Henderson about it. "He told me money was scarce and it was bad timing—it was right after 9/11. He said, 'maybe we'll do it in a couple of years.' When Bill was ready, he asked me if I'd be interested in editing it."

Murray didn't want the book to represent solely her tastes: "I had the idea to open it up to all 50 of us who had been Pushcart poetry editors. I felt that would make it a communal project, and, as Bill says, keep it 'in the Pushcart spirit.' " Each of the previous editors—including Jonathan Galassi, Jorie Graham, Kimiko Hahn and Robert Hass—chose six poems from their respective volumes, three to be included in the book itself, and three to be listed at the back. The resulting anthology "is very representative of what this field has been for the past 30 years," said Murray. "There are poems that deal with the bomb, and the era of AIDS and continue up to more recent concerns. There is humor, irony and experiment, and some very technically ambitious poems." The collection features poems by 154 poets, including Nobel laureates like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, Pulitzer Prize—winners like John Ashbery and Louise Glück, and lesser known poets like Thylias Moss and Reginald Shepherd.

The Pushcart Prize continues to be an essential resource for small presses, writers, readers and even booksellers. Gary Lawless, co-owner of Gulf of Maine books in Brunswick, Maine, said, "For true poetry fans, there's a lot of stuff that big presses don't publish. Their lists are pretty slim. Pushcart helps us find new voices, new people and new small publishers. It helps guide our choices."

The "Pushcart spirit," its seems, is stronger than ever.