New Editor Intro and Great Poetry

I was asked to guest edit Issue 9 of The Quotable and immediately jumped at the chance. I love reading poems while questioning, complicating, and evolving my ideas about what makes anything “good” and “publishable” literature, even when the discussions between editors get heated and seem depressingly infinite and polarized. Since graduating and beginning my life post-MFA incubator, I’ve missed editing poetry. I’ve really missed it. Editing makes me a better writer.  More importantly, it’s humbling. It allows me to feel active in this huge community of writers, a community that is often secluded and can’t grow without the members’ access to long hours of solitude and selfish, yet beautiful work that may never touch a single soul. I am partly an activist. I crave that part of myself in my writing life. Long hours writing alone feels inactive at times, though I believe poetry can and should create waves in the world.  Publishing good poetry alleviates this fear of inactivity. It makes me feel like a poet-activist. Not a poet/activist.

During my MFA, I was privileged to be on the founding team of Barely South Review and I helped build it from scratch. Over the next 3 years, in between writing poems, taking classes, traveling to South Africa and Senegal with the Women’s Studies and International Studies Departments at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, I sat in meetings brainstorming journal titles, deciding the journal’s aesthetics, navigating online publishing, reading and organizing emails, researching and trying different document clouds, rewriting submission guidelines, figuring out editor meetings, and finally sitting in editor meetings voting on hundreds of poems.

It was hard work and felt small at first, but after 3 years of work with my fellow students and writers, I can look back at the work we published and feel like an active force. Don’t tell me it’s not political to publish poems anymore. Sure, some of the poets we published were established, or had books coming out. It was clear that they would be published by another of the thousands of literary journals out there anyway, again and again. It’s important for small journals to publish a mixture of experience. But, many poets we published were just like me: finding their words, sanding down the rough edges of their craft, in or just out of their MFA, and unpublished. And amazingly fresh. I’ve since met many of them at AWP and was thanked, along with the rest of my old staff, for being the first push, the first publication that validated their passions, that kept them from giving up or throwing out their beloved words and lines that pushed boundaries. Meeting them (and also meeting my first publishers) electrified the activist in me. We need communities. This community built in the small world of literary journals is important. Some say that more muddies the rivers. I disagree. We need more. More journals and editors and writers. More voices. More boundaries pushed. More. More. More!

That said, it’s hard to figure out what is good. What’s the difference between good and really, really good? Like, a blow-your-mind, punch-your-gut, make-your-body convulse GREAT POEM? I thought about many things I could say to readers about what we’re looking for at The Quotable, and what I’m looking for in the poems. This lovely journal and the staff that’s worked hard to create this place of quotable literature has already done an amazing job showcasing what they think is great: literature that sticks with you enough to memorize. Writing you want to quote all your life. And of course, I’m looking for that too as the new poetry editor. But I’m also looking for great poems. I could talk about Bly and leaping poetry, or Hoagland and the balance between image, rhetoric, and diction. I could mention Rukeyser and Rich and their focus on poetry that’s political, that has an active force in the world, but also delights and inspires. I could talk about the need for music and my mentor Tim Seibles’ reminder that poetry’s roots are in song, in the human being’s evolution from animal to consciousness and our desire to speak and make noise that matters.

All of this matters. The truth is, though, that a great poem could do anything, as long as it makes sense, it punches the gut, and sings. It could break any of the rules and make no sense at all. It can say whatever it wants, as long as it wants. It just has to be great.