This is the third in a series of blog posts I am doing this week to honor those whom I call star-makers, meaning those who help make others’ literary lives possible, and sometimes even wonderful.
It goes without saying that every poet is dependent on his or her editors. I’ve been amazed the few times I have guest-edited a magazine or helped judge a book contest—at just how much time and worry goes into the process. And most poetry editors do it for free.
A year or two ago, when I was guest editing an issue of Poets/Artists, I wrote what I thought was a nice rejection letter to an aspiring poet. His poems were in the “almost” category, and I wanted to let him know how much I had enjoyed reading his work. I sent off what I thought was a kind email, and received back an outraged response. Who the eff do you think you are, Nin Andrews? Well, I’ll tell you who you are . . . Over the next few weeks, I received a barrage of hateful and threatening emails from this poet.
It occurred to me then that there is no such thing as a “nice rejection letter.” It also occurred to me that form letters have their place in the world. I was reminded of a friend who told me that David Lehman hated her. She just knew that was why she was never in Best American Poetry. Another poet told me that he would never get published in Poetry for the same reason. The editor, whom he had met briefly, had no respect for him. It seems that editors, despite their good intentions, despite everything they do for us poets and writers, are often objects of blame and rage.
Yet many editors are nothing short of self-sacrificing. While they are busy championing others, they often fail to champion themselves. I don’t know of a poet as self-effacing as Danny Lawless, for example, who is the editor of the wonderful online magazine, Plume, and of the series of books and chapbooks published by MadHat Press. He and his brilliant co-editor, Marc Vincenz, are two of my favorite editors to date. But when I suggested I interview Danny for this series on the star-makers of the poetry world, Danny immediately tried to bow out.
In my opinion, Danny Lawless is not only a great editor, he is also a unique and talented poet. Whether writing of his Catholic background, of his great grandmother’s backyard cremation or of his brother’s mental breakdown or his sister’s death, Lawless writes with emotional control, honesty, dark wit, and a clear eye for detail. His poems are at once witty and sad, profound and moving.
The title poem of his forthcoming book, “The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With,” first published in The Cortland Review, is nothing short of breath-taking. I don’t think I need to do more than post it here and point out that it has already received 2.6 thousand Likes.
The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With
By Danny Lawless
Was a cubit long and weighed half as much as an average newborn U.S. baby.
Who sold it to her remains a matter of police conjecture, a "collector," most likely, or a friend in need
Of cash; no receipt ever surfaced. What she did between the time she got it and the act
Adds little to the picture: coffee at McDonalds, a few words exchanged with a balding man in an army
Jacket outside the 7-11 on Broadway, no phone calls, no letter. When my mother got the
News she was hanging sheets to dry on the backyard clothes line; neighbors heard her
Cry two blocks over and thought a cat had died. (Where, exactly, Father spent that afternoon: c.f
Conjecture.) How Irish-pretty she was, pale, petite, kind, smart and slyly funny are duly noted now on
Her birthday, in photographs and little tales that end in tears that end in silence: we the cage
And Rilke's panther pacing there, a thousand bars and beyond the bars no world but why.
Another Danny Lawless poem I admire is his poem, “Ant,” which speaks to both his existential angst and his characteristic Catholic humor. Again, no explanation is needed. The poem is a pure delight.
I confess it was I
Who stole a bag of hosts
From the sacristy
After serving eight o’clock Mass
And ate them for breakfast
With a bottle of chocolate milk
Behind the dentist’s office.
Who in eighth grade got a blowjob
In the choir loft
One stormy spring afternoon
While the faces
Of your fiery prophets
Darkened with rage.
I who stole twenty tabs of oxycotin
When she had her teeth pulled.
Not to mention her car,
Which I wrecked and left somewhere in Tampa.
I who so many things.
Yet still you find me,
This fine October morning,
Before the sports pages.
You who are the author
Of my most intimate desires
Ringing your bell
As if I were a child at recess,
And sending I see your most esteemed
To fetch me.
* * *
So I thought I’d ask Danny Lawless a few questions here . . .
NA: I wondered if you could say a few words about your life as a poet—when did you decide to become a poet? Could you say a few words about your writing process?
DL: As you know, these decisions are rarely epiphanic. (I might have made that word up.) Ours was a reading family, though not initially of the literary type—the backs of cereal boxes, Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels, that sort of thing. When my brother was just becoming ill (schizophrenia), I recall he was —eerily as it turns out —obsessed with Conrad Aiken’s short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” So, being nine, I read that and Guadalcanal Diary. Poetry came later – fifteen or so. My aunt, a Mercy nun, got her Ph.D. at Notre dame, with a dissertation on Stevens, and left a stack of his books around. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” probably was the first poem I ever read.
My writing process: in a word, slow. I tend to come out of the gate strong, then pffft! the piece evaporates. So I start another one, and again the disappearing act. Eventually I have ten or twelve such quarter-poems, and either something finally clicks, or I cannibalize the others to make one poem, if I’m lucky.
NA: Is it hard to balance being an editor and a poet? What is your favorite non-literary pastime?
DL: It didn’t used to be, hard I mean. When I started Plume, I hadn’t really written much in, I am mortified to say, twenty-five or thirty years! Reading, always, but this writing lacuna remains a mystery. Then, suddenly, within a few months of Plume’s first issue, I wrote a poem over the course of a week, then another, and another. It’s been the same ever since. Non-literary pastimes? Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky — if you’re a sports fan you know that means basketball. Sometimes I joke that there, your father hands you a basketball and a pack of Marlboro’s for your twelfth birthday. I say a joke, because it’s actually more like your eighth birthday. I played pick-up with colleagues well into my forties, and when they dropped out, with my students. Now I shoot around every day —we have a hoop in the alley out back —but have over the last decade or so become a runner. I like the solitude – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was another favorite of my youth, and another odd earlier marker of what would come. By the way, it occurs to me that what is hard is reading so much marvelous poetry every day, in my inbox or from Submissions —terrifying and paralyzing, sometimes, to understand that you will never be that good.
NA: Could you say a few words about your forthcoming collection? When will it be out?
DL: The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With and Other Poems is the book’s title: quite the conversation-starter, right? It will be released in Spring, 2018, from Salmon.
I’m still working on the arrangement of poems; I have a few “sections,” and some ideas, but most of the poems have been published —well, ¾ anyway. I hope, as you so kindly suggest, it is humorous, and dark, and witty, and sad, and profound —but, I’d settle for any two of those. We’ll see.
NA: What was the inspiration for Plume? MadHat? How did you decide to become an editor of Plume? What is the secret to its success?
DL: The origin myth of Plume I’ve recounted before, in one of those annoying Editor’s Notes I scribble out usually on the day before we need to go live with an issue: Creative Writing class, student, back row, clearly not paying any attention to my lecture as he scans his computer; I stroll back, expecting Facebook, games, porn – anything but what I discover a literary magazine he’s putting together. Hmmm. Meet me in my office: Let’s talk. Semester ends. We’ve become friends. Weeks of thinking I could do this… become weeks of laying out a website at Starbucks, emailing my favorite poets asking for work. The first to respond, within half an hour: Maureen McLane. Then others, and by the end of the week we had our first issue’s quota filled and half of the next’s. Who knew? Not I, that’s for sure.
The inspiration a story both shorter and longer. I was a terrible student. In high school and college, later, somehow having acquired the notion that I knew more than my teachers, whom I considered squares, pedants —a notion let’s say they did not share. So, I read what I liked; for better or worse, I am largely an autodidact. (I once had “Roquentin” printed on a few of my tee shirts.) Anyway, I made the Louisville Public Library my home away from home, starting at fifteen or thereabouts. I’d wander through the stacks, taking down this or that book, until one day a year or so in, I tumbled on Cioran. A Short History of Decay and The Temptation to Exist. His aphorisms were like poetry but no poetry I’d ever encountered. His indexes were my guide for a good spell. Then I found the surrealists and the prose poem, through Benedikt’s magnificent anthologies. (I loved them so much I taught myself the rudiments of French in order to read the originals and remain an unreconstructed Francophile.) Onward to the South Americans, the Eastern Europeans, the Japanese…albeit in the process overlooking almost entirely what was happening in America then —in the late sixties and early seventies. So, here I was, gob-smacked by these poets no one around me, certainly not my teachers, had ever read, or heard of. And there, too, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was the inspiration, I’m certain, for Plume. Someday, somehow, I’d do something to preserve this astounding work; I felt like a monk, the library in my head the scriptorium. Grandiose, eh? But I was very young, and that’s what the young do best. When the journal came along, I saw my chance. The very first idea was to publish these saints, as I had come to see them: Char, Reverdy, Trakl, Montale, Parra, Miłosz, Celan, Pavese, Guillevic, Machado, Follain – especially Follain, the most sadly under-read of them all, perhaps, although Merwin saved him to some extent. (Plume’s original name was Canisy, the title of Follain’s ineffable memoire in prose poems of his childhood in that tiny village.) And that remains its guiding spirit, I guess, even if we have strayed from the letter of its unwritten law.
As for the secret of its success —assuming we have been a success, and to whatever infinitesimal degree, I really think it has something to do with three things: 1) the number of poems we publish each issue is twelve —the Goldilocks principle, hit upon by chance, luck, again; “just right” for reading in a single sitting, like the ideal short story; 2) our “eclecticism” as so many readers term it — or “no aesthetic ax to grind” —one of our blurbs, from Jeff Skinner. In a single issue one might encounter, for example, Cole Swenson or Charles Bernstein, Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Olds, Bruce Smith, G.C. Waldrep, Nin Andrews, translations of Hsia Yü or Jacques Réda; and 3) our look” —clean, spare, without ads or other distractions that might take away from the thing-itself, the words on the page. (Yet, while I say this, I am reminded that we have added book reviews, essays, and Featured Selections of ten or so poems from a single author, and are fooling around with adding audio/visual interviews…one must to some extent keep up with the times, after all.)
NA: Can you give me a highlight—one of your happiest editing experiences?
DL: But there are so many! Generally, though, it’s kind of one long highlight: getting to “meet” and sometimes become friends with, in a way, with poets I have admired forever. Never did I imagine I’d correspond, for example, with Gerry Stern, Tomaž Šalamun, Jean Valentine, Nina Cassian, Lydia Davis, Yves Bonnefoy. Star-struck. But then, of course, that wears off, and they become, as they must, people, with their endearing little pleasures and strange antipathies. But, one editing highlight: a well-known poet asked me to take a look at a poem whose last few lines he wasn’t happy with. Which I did, with the greatest trepidation, and thought I had an answer, sent it off. That same day, he replied with the most gracious, heartfelt email, saying that I’d better watch out or soon I’d have poems pouring in over the transom. So, there’s that.
NA: I’d love to close with a poem of your choice, either from your own work or from Plume.
DL: Thanks so much, Nin. I think I’ll close with two, if you don’t mind, both exemplars of the “I could never be that good” category and both from Plume.
Linda Bierds’ “The Bird Trap,” a poem I’ve read no doubt a dozen times —each reading a revelation, for the craft, surely, but also for how it illuminates the delicate, grave affinities between the two geniuses at its heart. The other Phillis Levin’s masterful “The Stroller,” which begins with the essential question of allpoetry, or at least one of its timeless queries: “And aren’t we all like this…”
The Bird Trap
--after the painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
But for clusters of red clothing, the painting
is monochrome, snow and river
in that ivory-going-to-gray a winter evening offers.
And under the evening, under
the sky and smoky horizon, traversing
the painting’s lower half, deep snow and the frozen river
exactly divide the scene:
two dozen birds near a riverfront yard, six of them flying;
two dozen people on the ice, six with arms extended.
And under their laughter and guttural chirrups
lies nothing but the scrape of skates
and the dull chatter of curling stones
as they slip, like great rounds of granite bread,
toward some gradually vanishing target
etched on the scored ice.
Movements Alan Turing would love, had he seen the painting.
The balancing figures, of course, and the curler,
bent to a stone, putting a little English on it.
But also the target, invisibly sinking away--
rings, inner rings, and a center button—becoming
at last just a pattern in the mind.
It is 1952. The charge: gross indecency. The parlor:
cluttered. On a cheap violin, Turing is playing
“Cockles and Mussels”, the music’s wordless barrow
scraping past Wills and Rimmer, two seated detectives
who cannot stop mouthing sweet Molly Malone. Why not,
for these minutes, listen, the bugger so welcoming,
so quick to confess, as if two men together…as if
two men complicitly trying
the three condemned exchanges Turing so openly listed,
were free? And isn’t it almost legal, he asked,
and who is displaced, the world so shattered
we must speak in codes, in key clicks and ciphers,
rings, inner rings, the bow lifted, his unshaven chin
on the rest, breath in, breath out, fogging
the body, fogging the thin, yellowed,
almost mother-of-pearl varnish, over
and over, alive, alive-o.
Two perils: in the lower left foreground
a large, dark hole in the ice; in the lower right
a bird trap—a heavy, wooden door
propped up at one end by a stick.
It makes a little lean-to, a little respite
in the snow, its soft floor sprinkled with seeds,
and its trip-rope, tied to the stick, so pale
in the winter yard that Turing must step closer,
must place his face near the old wood
and stiffened leather hinges
to see the rope arc upward--from the stick, through
the yard, then on through a narrow window
where someone invisibly watches.
Or doesn’t. The window so close to the painting’s edge
the trap seems harmless, unmanned, a simple
geometric shape, a kind of static pendulum
set to capture the turning world. And did they know,
Turing asked, that the proper way
to launch a pendulum’s bob
is by thread and candle flame? The bob
tied above its downward arc, the candle
burning through the tie. Foucault—more wine?--
knew this. Did they? No chance for interference then.
No clammy hands or coughs or tics.
No common human veerings.
The house is almost outside the scene. A slice
of wall and roofline, a slash of bird-blind window.
In the foreground, left and right,
two perils, passive: allegory’s lolling greed.
One takes the utmost care, he said.
Clear path. Near-windless room. Star shape
painted on the floor to illustrate the journey.
Bright candle. Silk thread.
from The Plume Anthology of Poetry V 3
Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”
And aren’t we all like this at times,
Bumping helplessly down the stairs
Into a street surging with fire,
The one whose eyes were upon us
Out of control of the handle
Attached to our carriage?
Why are we shocked when
The glasses drop and the face
Of horror crowds the screen?
The reel crackles, there is
No end in sight,
Nowhere to flee.
We have seen them before,
People who look surprised
To have lived so long: open
An album, pass a wooden door.
Late summer, the quiet creatures
Scurrying through grass
Know it’s time to start over,
Theirs a genesis we cannot reenter.
Daniel Lawless’s book The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With and Other Poems is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry Press, 2017. He has published poems recently in Cortland Review, Louisville Review, American Journal of Poetry, The Common, Manhattan Review, Ploughshares, B O D Y, Prairie Schooner, FIELD, Fulcrum, Asheville Review, , etc. He is the founder and editor of Plume: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry.