On perspectives about poetry
People outside of the literary community often assume that poetry, especially contemporary poetry, has very little to do with their lives and the world around them. When asked, usually they express their relationship with poetry in adversarial terms – the poem as a challenge or riddle, a code to be broken, or a puzzle to solve. This is frequently coupled with a sense that once solved, the poem will reveal itself to be a window into something obscure or intensely personal, with very little connection to the reader. I try to address this when I can, championing the work of new and established poets whose poetry tackles a wide variety of topics and concerns that are clearly linked to the present culture and time, and do so in ways that are wonderfully unexpectedly accessible. Rather than confirm old stereotypes of poetry as romantic, nostalgic, and/or pastoral in its orientation, I find myself recommending the work of poets I’ve encountered who have written in compelling ways about professional wrestling, video games, tv shows, transnational adoption, carnivals, mixed race identity, haunted houses, gun violence, immigration, the history of various technologies, and a host of other fascinating topics and experiences. While I can’t guarantee that each person will connect with the poets and poems I recommend, I do think it’s vital that we do our part to expand the public understanding of what poetry is and what it can tackle.
In classrooms and workshops, I find that some poets believe that witty wordplay and obscure diction are sufficient to make something poetry. For them poetry is an exercise in cleverness, a performance of their own genius. It can be hard work to disabuse them of this notion—to get them to imagine the poem as a spiral outward into possibility, rather than a spiral inward into unchecked navel-gazing and self-analysis. I think it’s important to do this work—to encourage young poets to let go of the need for a fixed, predetermined end and imagine something more wild, more unbounded.
As I get older, I find myself increasingly drawn to the notion that poetry is defined not so much by what it is, as by what it does. That is to say, rather than offer a list of figures, tropes, and other surface level features which may or may not be present, I prefer thinking of poetry as a sort of magic—a recipe or incantation that evokes or recreates within the reader a particular emotional state of wonder, yearning, or sorrow. It’s not just the images or words, but poetry emerges out of their ordering and juxtaposition, the way each word assembled together with the next draws on the collective power of personal association and cultural memory.
While we often find ourselves in workshop discussing poetry as if it were mechanical in nature, I wonder if we’d be better served by reflecting on the ways a poem is also part organism, part alchemical mixture, and part dysfunctional family? To me, poetry is messy business—its language and ideas are constantly bleeding into each other, refusing an easy untangling. The poems I love are the ones which resemble nothing I’ve seen before, which move in strange, unexpected, even audacious ways—forcing me to reconsider my assumptions about the world I live in, who I am, and who and what surround me. When people ask me what I’m looking for in a poetry submission for Boxcar, I usually tell them I want work that leaves me gut-punched and reeling, haunted for days by what I’ve read. It’s that type of an encounter, that type of a medium.
As reader and an editor, I find myself resisting poetry that operates in a state of smugness or turns its eye too self-consciously on its maker and its making. I prefer poetry that journeys into the dark corners and forgotten spaces, not quite certain of what it will find, but moving forward nonetheless, every step fraught and perilous, the path ahead new and unfamiliar.
For those familiar with it, Boxcar Poetry Review is known for being the home of well-written compelling poems that are unflinching in their tackling of human experience, as well as a journal that showcases reviews of first books and interviews and conversations with first book poets. We’re generally regarded as particularly tough place to get published—we place the emphasis on the poems, not on the publishing history or credentials of the poet, and for a long time we were listed in Duotrope’s Top 25 Most Difficult Markets. It’s not that we vie for this particular distinction, but our selectivity is a natural product of a choice to limit each issue to 10-12 poems, which means I’m constantly saying no to work that might find a home in a journal that publishes more poems. As an editor, I’m always trying to winnow my final set of poems down to the most exceptional and brilliant, to publish work that can’t be found anywhere else. Given this selectivity and likelihood that we turn down other publishable poems for the sake of the final few, we try to be friendly and supportive even in our rejections. I feel there’s really no need for an editor to be unpleasant or dismissive in their correspondence—after all, who knows what may show up in a poet’s next submission? Although it’s impossible to respond personally to every submission when I do encounter an especially promising set of poems I try to take the time to comment on the strengths of what I’ve read, indicate the problem points as I perceive them, and sometimes offer a possible remedy if the solution seems fairly straightforward. I think this effort to treat each submitter as a fellow poet, rather than a client or nuisance to be dealt with, has helped build the community around us and earn us a reputation for being a journal worth reading and striving for.
With regards to my own work, I have no regret. I have tried to only send out the poems I believed were strong and have avoided sending out work simply for the sake of having something out there. I’ve also been fortunate that when my judgment about my own poems has been faulty, other editors have been wise enough to say no and save me from myself.
As the editor of Boxcar, the only thing I regret publishing was a poem that turned out to be plagiarized. It was a good poem, deserving of publication—but it leaned too heavily on the language, structure, and ideas of another person. Somehow it had slipped under the radar and almost two years went by before I received an email from a reader alerting me to the close similarity between the poem we’d published and one that had been widely anthologized in the 1980s. I was mortified. I felt embarrassed by my own lack of familiarity with this once well-known poem and betrayed by the submitter who’d broken the unwritten contract between submitters and editors to only send original work. I ended up taking down the poem and updating the issue online, as well as cutting it from the print-on-demand anthology I’d included it in. I wrote a stern letter to the poet in question and a very apologetic letter to the original poet who was still alive. It was a tough lesson. I don’t think you can ever fully guard against plagiarism as an editor–there are just too many poems out there and it’s not possible to memorize them all. The best you can do is keep reading and keep trusting that the majority of people sending you work are doing so without any intent to deceive you.
Neil Aitken is the author of two books of poetry, The Lost Country of Sight (Anhinga 2008), winner the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, and Babbage's Dream (Sundress 2016). His poetry chapbook, Leviathan, will be published by Hyacinth Girl Press in late 2015. He is also the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review, an online literary journal. A proud Kundiman fellow, his poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize numerous times and has appeared in American Literary Review, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and elsewhere. He holds both a Ph.D. in Creative Writing & Literature from the University of Southern California and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UC Riverside.
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