On perspectives about poetry
I suspect that the biggest misconception that people outside the literary community have about poetry—still, a century after modernism—is that it is too difficult for the average person to understand. Now anyone who keeps up with a range of lit mags today will know that this is really not the case anymore (if it ever was), but it’s apparently one of those persistent legends, like the one about Walt Disney being cryogenically frozen.
But! This doesn’t mean that all poets are doing their jobs well and that it’s up to the reading public to come feast on their poetry. Related to the outsiders’ misconception is this insiders’ misconception: that a poet’s first responsibility is to truth rather than to readers.
I know that as a writer I am sometimes guilty of valuing my experience because it is mine rather than because it is interesting, and I find this when I read, too.
The other day I realised after I had finished reading a book of poems published last year that every single poem in the volume had been an autobiographical first-person lyric. This was an educated, searching poet—someone whose insight on any number of subjects that the world throws up might have been welcome—but it was like watching someone trying to dance on a chess board. I think poets sell themselves short if they feel they’re only qualified to talk about themselves.
It’s important to say that poetry for me is one thing ‘when I’m a poet’ and another thing at other times. What I mean by this is that a poem’s use value—can I cannibalise it? has it given me an idea? will a trick like this work for me?—is sometimes all I care about. In the same way, the manager of a sports team looks at an unfolding game differently than a spectator does. It is, frankly, a pretty crass way of thinking about an art, but there you have it.
But every participant is also a fan.
If I’m forced to think about a question as fundamental and vexing as ‘what is poetry for me’, I’d say this: that, together, the work that all the poets of the past and today have produced represents a sort of collective bargaining agreement with life.
A body of poetry sets forth the terms and conditions of living, and it contains provisions regarding compensation (joy and sorrow), hours of work (reflections on mortality), and working conditions (the human condition). This agreement has been fought for by generations of poets, and I’m proud to be a tiny part of that struggle.
I get a surprising number of cover letters expressing some variant of ‘I love Queen Mob’s’. I have no way of knowing if this is genuine adulation or mere cover-letter-ese (anyone reading this: feel free to let me know), but it feels real.
I think readers feel that Queen Mob’s Teahouse is simultaneously fun and earnest without being either goofy or po-faced. (I’m pretty sure this is what the founders Russ Bennetts and Rauan Klassnik wanted, so I’m glad that it comes across.) I’d point to one important fact in support: quite a few submitters report that someone else recommended they submit to us, so we obviously, to use a WOMM (word-of-mouth marketing) buzz phrase, are ‘jolly nice people’.
In any case, I read good work by good poets all the time, and that’s worth more to me than cachet or media interest. (Please link to this interview.) We’ll see what the second full year of publishing QMT brings.
The poem that I regret publishing hasn’t been submitted to me yet. I can’t wait to see in what way it’s appalling, and I wonder why I’ll be unable to see that fact until it’s too late. The future is an exciting place for an editor.
Erik Kennedy, poetry editor of Queen Mob’s Teahouse, on poetry and publishing.
In Two Weeks: Don Share of Poetry Magazine