On perspectives about poetry
Over a year ago I started a small project called Thursday’s Poem. It served as a way to answer the question often posed to me by folks from home: “Why are you studying poetry?” or “Poetry? Like, O captain my captain?” I’ve grown tired over the years reading essays and think pieces about what poetry is, what purpose it serves, “IS POETRY STILL RELEVANT!?”, etc. Absolutely, there are exceptions (see reviews and essays by Stephen Burt and any talk by Claudia Rankine…). But these writers are not often considering an audience beyond the “literary community.”
So what essay do I send my grandmother? Thursday’s Poem is a small email newsletter to answer this question. Today it’s a list of about 200 people who by and large are outside literary circles. I write a little note to accompany the poem, often something small about how it fit into my week. Of course some craft speak bleeds into my entries, but they are written with my grandmother in mind. (This is not to say I send only the most gentle poetry Neruda and Oliver have to offer. The many people who email back each week lead me to question assumptions I have about poetry and about how people “outside” the “literary community” might respond to Patricia Smith when they’ve only ever seen Robert Frost.) People are interested in poetry.
There is a misconception that poetry is not for the everyday. Poetry is elite. Poetry is academic. Poetry is what your high school English teacher said poetry is, and what does that have to do with Trump and overdue rent and shootings in schools and churches? In my experience, we get our first and perhaps only time with poetry in high school. When we have instructors presenting Shakespeare and Frost with craft jargon alone, we make this art form inaccessible to young people. But sharing Yusef Komunyakaa and then Shakespeare and then Wysława Symborska and then Laurie Lamon and then Mahmoud Darwish creates a completely different narrative than what we get in school. It shows readers outside our community what poetry is capable of and how it makes itself accessible.
The first literary magazine I worked for is called Rock & Sling. It calls itself a “journal of witness.” The Editor-in-Chief Thom Caraway looks for poetry that engages with doubt, faith, grief, spirituality, etc. in ways that are complicated and human, not unforgivably trite. (If you choose to submit after reading this, I would also avoid sending poems with “small, insignificant birds”.) What I took away from editing at R&S, and which has remained in my reading habits, was this idea of witness. I want poetry that testifies to something. That lets me into a world I would otherwise not have access to. That takes the spiritual or the political and forces the reader to re-experience it on the poem’s terms. Just look at a group like Dark Noise Collective. They are witnessing. They are telling the truth. Poetry is both a tool and a made object.
It’s difficult to say how folks see Redivider. When you have a masthead that is completely new every two to three years, it’s hard to identify how your readership understands your editorial work. It’s only after I’m beyond Redivider and Emerson’s MFA that I’ll be able to look back with everyone else and see the trends I sustained, ended, and created. The big question I keep at the front of my mind when I confront the slush pile is this: “What are you going to do as a white, cisgendered, straight, male editor to assure that Redivider is not just a reflection of yourself?” Because we. do. not. need. that. This can be a complicated task in slush. But with the help of my readers, assistant poetry editor Sally Burnette, and friendpoets that I check in with constantly, Redivider is moving in a more representative and inclusive direction. Which means it’s moving in a better, more exciting, more worthwhile direction.
There’s an aggressive aversion to admitting fallibility in publishing and editing. It happens all the time. We see it in complicated and engaging ways (Sherman Alexie’s decision to keep a poem by Michael Derrick Hudson in Best American Poetry because of his intentionally selective process to favor writers of color), and we see it in uncomplicated and harmful ways (Antioch Review’s insistence that Daniel Harris’s transphobic essay is creating conversation and is therefore a legitimate piece of writing to publish). At Redivider I make sure each piece slotted for acceptance is read and reread by as many readers and other editors as possible. When I’m moving through final selections, I trust my eye and my instinct up until the moment I send an acceptance. Then I confirm with our readers and staff. This has kept me from publishing a few pieces that I would have regretted.
A lot of poets have this misunderstanding of the editorial process that throughout a reading period poems sort of stack up on a linear scale of goodness. Not so. Every once in long while you come across a poem that’s perfect. Gorgeous. It does everything you dreamed a poem could possibly do, and you’ll remember that poem forever. Then, ninety-something percent of the remaining poems are turned down for a myriad of reasons. The last fraction you’re left with is a group of anywhere from 25–75 really excellent poems. You can pick eighteen. Seventeen, actually, because of that one perfect poem. Go. Would I pick today the same eighteen poems from the final 25–75 that I did four issues ago? Maybe not. That’s not exactly a regret. But I’m constantly aware that my tastes and tendencies reflect what and how much I read. So as a bit of very basic advice to editorpoets: read constantly. Read as much as you can and as broadly as you can, especially if you see your own face reflected in the bulk of what you’ve published.
John Allen Taylor’s poetry has appeared in Booth, The Boiler, Nashville Review, Faultline, and Muzzle Magazine. He lives in Boston, MA & serves as Redivider's Poetry Editor + Ploughshares’s Senior Poetry Reader. Say hello @johna_taylor.
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