Tuesday, November 22, 2011

9L Behind the Scenes: Poetry

First, let me apologize for it being a bit quieter around here than I would like. Instead of giving a list of excuses, let's focus on the good stuff.

You should stop over at the Hayden's Ferry Review blog to see what 9L's editor, Jodee Stanley has to say when asked about the role of small presses.

We're getting closer to the next issue (yay!), so keep an eye out for previews of that issue's fantastic content in December. However, we still have amazing content from the current issue to talk about.

Recently, I spoke with two 9L poetry staffers, Sara Gelston and Max Somers, about their experiences reading poetry submissions for Ninth Letter and about some of the poems in the current issue, vol. 8, no. 1. Let's call this the first in a new blog series: 9L Behind the Scenes. Enjoy!

9L: When making your way through the slush pile, what are some of the qualities about a poem that make you stop and want other people to read it? In other words, what are you looking for when reading submissions?

Sara Gelston: I’d say what I’m looking for changes day to day, but things I’m always attracted to: poems that are risking something; poems embracing mystery, not obscurity; poems resisting artifice. Really, I’m looking for poems that are engaging with something substantial to the poet. I guess what I mean by that is I want to feel a poet’s investment in their subject. A real connection. I want a confident poem. A carefully considered one. A poem that risks revealing too much. These are the poems I want to share. I’m always looking for a poem to be more than a birdcage—more than a “lovely” or “decorative” or “precious” thing—and instead be something with a solid sound, an undeniable pulse, and a real sense of urgency.

Max Somers: More than anything, I’m looking for a distinctive voice. There is a lot of very competent writing in the slush pile; so many poems are well-oiled, tight little machines. They’re tough to hate, but harder to love. What’s rare is wildness.

Of course, competent writing is a prerequisite to making it out of slush and into the editorial meeting, but a certain lack of control is what really gets my attention. This, I suppose, is not just a matter of the poet’s “skills” but also her disposition. What is she doing to me, to herself, to the world? Is she giving something up? Is she imposing on me and my sensibilities? Is she asking something of me? Is she a little uncouth? I hope so. I want a poet who is willing to step on a few toes. Too many poems in the slush pile simply want me to nod my head in agreement and enjoy them in a very vague, forgettable way. Boring.

So, what does this elusive, wild poem look like? I have no idea, it’s different every time. I came across Jenny Hanning’s poem, “Litter,” the other day---from our Fall/Winter 2010-11 issue (vol. 7, no. 2). That poem has it, whatever the hell it is.

9L: As you know we don't put issues together with a theme in mind. However, there often ends up being connections between the pieces. Is that something that happened in poetry for the current issue (vol. 8, no. 1)? If so, could you talk a little bit about how some of the poems might work together?

MS: Once the issue starts coming together--toward the end of the semester, when we've accepted a number of poems--it's easier to see how certain pieces might be working with others; that certainly has some effect our decision to take or "toe-tag" a particular poem. As readers/editorial assistants we don't have a say on the final order of poems, but there are some really interesting connections in this issue. Looking at it right now I see a nice little boy on boy love theme encircling Ansel Eiken's "On Leaving the Boy in the Battlefield" and Matthew Dickman's lively, lovely love poems to the beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Kaufman. Someone was smart enough to put these poems next to each other, let them ping off one another.

SG: As Max said, certain themes definitely emerge as our reading period draws to a close. In this particular issue, we’ve got some real odes to icons running through several poems—Ilya Kaminsky shows up in Scott Minar’s “Reading the Odyssey,” Allen Ginsberg and Bob Kaufman are the headliners in Matthew Dickman’s poems, and then of course we have Maxine Skate’s star-studded “Sirkian.” It’s hard not to sit back at some point and look at the similarities emerging in the accepted poems pile, whether it’s an issue with a surprising number of livestock poems (which we’ve had), or in this case, some heavy names being dropped between the pages.

And really, that’s a really terrific part of our meetings—holding two poems next to each other and hearing some kind of conversation, some kind of echo. It happens whether you’re trying for it or not.

9L: Obviously we can't predict how readers will react to certain pieces, but what's your hope concerning their reading experience? What do you want readers to walk away with after reading the poems in the issue?

SG: I want for readers the same thing I want for myself whenever I open a journal—to find poems that resonate somewhere, make me uncomfortable, rough me up a little. I want our readers to feel that more often than not. I’d like for them to pick up the issue again after a year and remember Scott Minar’s “Pecadillo” or Roy Giles’ “Before I Go to Bed.” Then again, I’d like each time they come back to the issue to be a bit different—for two poems to finally knock together or for an old poem to raise its head and surprise them.

MS: I second everything Sara said and I’ll add just a thing or two. One, we are extremely tough on poems in editorial meetings. Poems that make it into a given issue worked hard to get there, meaning we were floored (in one way or another) by every piece. There’s not too much else to say. I hope our readers like the poems we bring to them as much as we like the poems. I hope they tear a poem out of the magazine and stick on their wall…or at least remember a line or two.

Thanks to Sara and Max for taking the time to answer my questions and for all their insights. To read the poems talked about here as well as all the other wonderful poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction from the current issue (vol. 8, no. 1) or from vol. 7, no. 2, head on over to our webstore to pick up copies of the issues.

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