On perspectives about poetry
I always think of myself as an ambassador for poetry, so I always go into classes, workshops, and presentations with the misconception that people don’t care or are unfamiliar with poetry. Whenever I visit middle schools, high schools, and universities, I start out with the question, “All right, be honest, who here hates poetry?” I expect everyone with the exception of two or three to raise their hands, but it’s been the opposite the last few years. Most kids fall into the category of somewhere in the middle, admitting they don’t understand poetry while they like to write it. Others love music and consider it a poetry too. I can agree with that. I see these trends with adults too, who fondly remember poetry and reconnect with it at a reading or workshop if they’re not active writers. Other kids admit the way our schools teach poetry makes it difficult to appreciate it, so we need to keep finding ways to counter that. Programs like Poetry Out Loud, organizations like CantoMundo, Cave Canem, Kundiman, and community groups, podcasts, online lit mags, poetry readings mixed with art and musicians, and social media are all creating safe spaces that help people get their dose of poetry while letting them find value and appreciate of poetry even if it’s in quick bites.
Recently, I’ve been talking to my students a lot about the poem they want to write vs. the poem they think they should write for “Professor Morales.” Too many times, we poets are writing to outsmart the reader, to leave them with an amusing anecdote, or to end with a punchline. When that happens, readers don’t return to the poem. If we’re persistent, it takes several drafts to work out those issues. I’ve been telling my students to find the subject matter that speaks to them on the daily, that speaks to what really matters to them. Once they start latching onto that, I ask them to think about the expected and the unexpected specifics they can reveal. The idea of the (un)expected doesn’t change the fact that I grew up in a diverse and working class part of Colorado Springs, outside of a military base, which usually draws me to writing that is accessible and with a narrative slant. I want random people to come across my poems, read them, and say, “Hey, that’s a pretty cool poem.” That guides my editorial self a lot.
On the other hand, I also love being challenged by lyrical and more experimental writers that leave me wishing I wrote like that. As an editor, I am reading to learn from our submitters and contributors, also hoping to strike a balance where the conversational voices and the poets experimenting on the page can entice us to return to the writing not to only understand the complex snapshot they’re creating, but to also see how it’s put together.
Pilgrimage celebrates its 40th year in 2016, which is a milestone we don’t take for granted. In that time, the magazine has gone through a lot of changes in style, tone, and feel. I’m happy to do my part to keep the magazine in print and hopefully innovate in the process. The magazine’s tagline, story, spirit, witness, and place, has given our readers and writers different ways to experience Pilgrimage over the years. We want writers and readers to see our magazine as inclusive, aware of the VIDA count, advocates for diverse voices, and supportive for emerging writers.
I have a strong background in poetry and so did the previous editor of Pilgrimage, and we only recently opened up to regular fiction submissions. Because of that, we’re trying to build in a stronger balance between prose and poetry in our pages. I guess this goes with the misconception some have about poetry acting as the filler between the longer pieces. We strive to equally feature all the pieces we publish through the ordering of the issue and other minor choices.
With Pilgrimage, some have just discovered us while we also hear from writers who had a piece in the magazine 15 years ago. Either way, I get the impression that we are seen as a small lit mag that consistently uses our themes to catch the eye of the readers and writers. Our themes tease out a closer look at the different layers of these tag-lines while giving our writers a field for them explore writing they already have in progress or ideas they’re inspired to create based on our calls. The risk becomes instances when writers feel obligated to use key words in their submission as much as possible when we’re hoping for the opposite. Treat it as if our challenge is to not use the word. We want the writing to elicit the emotion, the image, and the feel of that theme instead. It goes back to playing with the (un)expected we’re always approaching.
Not yet. I’m starting my third year with Pilgrimage and I haven’t felt regret about any pieces we have published. I read them carefully with my Associate Editor and ask how the writer and magazine mutually represent each other. I still have a lot to learn but I’m getting more comfortable in this position with my successes and mistakes. For example, with one volume, I got too excited and announced three themes all at once, which made our submission response time take a serious hit, so we missed out on a lot of wonderful work people submitted. There’s also the chance it discouraged people from submitting again since people want a prompt reply. We returned to announcing one theme at a time, so we can improve our response time, avoid withdrawn submissions, and make sure writers feel like their words are receiving careful consideration.
Another situation happened a few issues back, when a young Latino writer sent me an angry response to a rejection slip. He accused me of nepotism and for not giving emerging writers a chance. I tried to write back a supportive yet firm response but my reply probably came off as defensive. I never heard back from him. I wanted to tell him, I’ve been there and I still get frustrated too. I also keep learning that rejection will always be a part of my own journey toward publication and writing. Going back to the misconceptions people have in the literary community, lit mag editors aren’t trying to get in the way; instead, they want to cultivate a dialogue and relationship with fellow writers, readers, and editors. These gestures come from all the steps in the editorial and production process, which are mostly behind the scenes and suffer from time constraints. Like other artists, the editor’s task is to remain in the background so the art and the writing can be the focal point with limited distractions. Like many of us in those times of concentration with beautiful writing, I’ve seen an interest in poetry grow into a love that save lives and I can say with confidence it has done that for me too. It happens in classrooms, readings, and why not lit mags? We have the opportunity to use literary journals to bring equal representation in gender, sexual identity, race, disability, and other areas of diversity. It’s a start but we can definitely agree we have a lot of more work to do on that front.
Juan Morales' second poetry collection, The Siren World, was selected as one of "2015 Latino Books: 8 Must-Reads from Indispensable Small Presses" on NBC News. He is also the author of Friday and the Year That Followed with poems recently appearing in Poet Lore, Hayden's Ferry Review, Mas Tequila Review, Pank, and Duende. He is a CantoMundo Fellow, the Editor of Pilgrimage Magazine, and an Associate Professor of English at Colorado State University-Pueblo, where he directs the Creative Writing Program and curates the SoCo Reading Series.
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