Publishing poems is a stressful undertaking. All those weeks bleeding into months of waiting. And let's not talk about the stakes in getting published--the validation, the fleeting social media fame, the entries on the CV, or if you're an academic the tenure review folder. And yet, as a reader, nothing gives me more pleasure than to discover a new voice or to read a new poem by a favorite poet. I often lose whole days just leafing through the pages (or screen) of a literary journal.
I've decided to try to create this series to bring attention to literary journals (and those who labor behind the scenes to keep them running) in hopes that these conversations can be useful to poets who are trying to figure out how to publish poetry.
I caught up with E. Ethelbert Miller and Jody Bolz, executive editors of the literary journal Poet Lore, to share insights about their journal and to demystify the anxiety-producing prospect of trying to publish in a journal that receives thousands of submissions per year.
Both of you are seasoned poets and long-time readers of literary journals. What would you say sets Poet Lore apart from other journals?
Ethelbert: I think our journal is one the general public can enjoy. I feel it’s a publication that presents a “gift bag” for everyone. I also see Poet Lore upholding American literary traditions as well as venturing into the unknown and discovering new voices. Every magazine is unique because each reflects the vision of its editors. My views about what a literary journal can do were shaped by my working relationship with the writer and publisher Ahmos Zu-Bolton back in the 1970s. I helped him publish Hoo-Doo. At that time, it was the sister magazine to Callaloo and Obsidian. Ahmos placed special emphasis on design and format. A journal has to look good as well as read well. I like how Poet Lore looks and feels in my hands. When I read the list of contributors on the back cover page of an issue, I’m proud of the work I’m doing, the history I’m creating, the bringing to surface the blessings from poets.
Jody: One thing that makes each issue of Poet Lore a fascinating read is the way the poems are arranged in relationship to one another: we place them in a narrative arc so that the poets are in conversation with one another from start to finish. Our Editors’ Page in the front of the journal invites readers to consider specific thematic threads that run through the selection of poems. We love the idea of presenting a chorus of voices in a wide range of tones, and the sound metaphor is no accident; at each month’s editorial meeting, we read the poems we’ve chosen for consideration aloud to one another. When we can’t hear any kind of music (and I’m not talking about conventional meter and rhyme here but cadences and echoes), we don’t take the poem.
As editors and readers, what do you look for in a poem? What makes you say "yes" unequivocally?
Ethelbert: I think I first say “no” to poems. I reject before I accept. I’m not looking for anything, other than what Hirsch once mentioned as being the pleasure poetry gives us. A poem is accepted by the magazine if both editors agree. So, to some extent the “yes” is a collective one. The accepted poem receives a democratic vote or what might also be viewed as a Supreme Court hearing. Editors should uphold the “law” of publishing good writing. Maybe the “yes” we say is the “yes” e.e. cummings once wrote about. Yes to everything that is beautiful in the world. Maybe at the end of the day I want a poem to love me back.
Jody: There has to be something in the poem that calls us back to it—that makes us forget we’re editors, busy at our task, and makes us readers again. That “something” enchants or unsettles or entices us. It may even confuse us at first—but everything we need to know is in the poem if we reread it. What do we look for? Hard to describe though easy to recognize: an authentic and engaging voice, an interesting sense of “the line,” a good ear, respect for the mysteriousness of human experience without any amateurish retreat into obscurantism. Carl Phillips (whose very first poem appeared in Poet Lore decades ago, has said that a good poem ends with the thwack of one door closing and the softer sounds of many small doors opening behind it.
Can you tell me about the "Poets Introducing Poets" feature? How do you go about selecting poets to be featured and the poet who writes the introduction?
Ethelbert: There is nothing worse than a stale journal. I think the “Poets Introducing Poets” feature keeps Poet Lore interesting and fresh. The feature means we can keep our fingers on the pulse of poetry being written across the US. I like that the editors selected for this section reside in different parts of our country and often have a different aesthetic or taste than I do. It helps to have a big net when editing a publication over a long period of time. The feature also helps to develop a community among writers. At one time the editors selected to coordinate the section were on our contributing editors’ board. Giving them this task meant they were doing more than just lending their name to the journal; they were also working for us. On a number of occasions the writer selected was one the editor had been mentoring.
Jody: Ethelbert and I began editing the magazine together 15 years ago, and after the first year, we decided to add this feature. We asked Tony Hoagland, one of our contributing editors, to select a poet he respected whom we’d never published. He chose Adrian Blevins, whose first book of poetry was coming out at that time, and his introduction to her work included this marvelous line: “Because she has the syntactical skill, the rhythmic momentum, and associative neurology, and the tonal range to pull it off, reading a Blevins poem is like taking a carnival ride through an especially capacious soul.” What a way to invite a reader into a portfolio of new poems! Soon after that, Cornelius Eady introduced Gregory Pardlo’s work, Alberto Rios introduced Kyle Grant Wilson’s work, Jane Shore introduced Nadell Fishman’s work; David Lehman introduced Jay Leeming’s work. Later, poets with a long relationship with the magazine began to participate: D. Nurkse introduced the poems of Inuit poet dg nanouk okpik; Natasha Trethewey (another poet whose first poems were published in Poet Lore) introduced the poems of Tarfia Faizullah…. Most of these pairings were teacher-student relationships, but Sandra Gilbert’s choice was the venerable Diana O’Hehir, author of seven books of poetry and fiction. The other popular feature we’ve added is our annual “World Poets in Translation” series, through which we’ve presented the work of remarkable foreign poets with incisive introductions by their translators. We’ve already published work from such far-flung places as Denmark, Turkey, Myanmar, Iran, Uruguay, and (in the coming issue) Togo. Poet Lore’s commitment to publishing world writers in translation goes back to the time of its founding in 1889.
Lastly, what advice would you give poets who'd like to see their work in your journal? What should they do before submitting? And how do you accept submissions these days?
Ethelbert: People are always looking for advice. Too often the red light never turns green. People submitting work to our magazine should let it slow-cook on their desks first. Put together four or five poems that show a range in style and voice. How to submit? Place your ear next to the last issue we published. If you hear yourself then send us something new and different.
Jody: I agree with what Ethelbert says apart from the suggestion that a poet should submit a group of poems that show “a range in style and voice.” Put together four or five poems that make an impression as a group. We’re reading close to a thousand poems a month, and you want your work to stand out—to make an impression. Too many MFA candidates send us one villanelle, one prose poem, a list poem, and a persona poem; these submissions read like responses to workshop assignments. When you ask about any poem “Who’s speaking—and in what human situation?” (which was Auden’s advice, I believe), you don’t want the answer to be “A graduate student trying to get published.” The best advice of all, of course, is to subscribe to the magazine and read it cover to cover. That will tell you everything you need to know.
Poet Lore was founded in 1889. Its editors Ethelbert and Jody will be at AWP on the panel, "Old Journals, New Writing: Editors on History and Discovery," scheduled for 9:00am on Feb 10th. The panel will be moderated by Jody Bolz. Its panelists include Jeremy Schraffenberger, poetry editor of North American Review, Don Share of Poetry, and Kwame Dawes of Prairie Schooner.
Abdul Ali is the author of Trouble Sleeping, winner of 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize. You can follow him on Twitter @abdulali_ .