By Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller
Poetry is worth nothing—and everything. As a commodity, it has so little value in our culture that one can steal it without fear of legal consequences. Yet we seek it at the most consequential moments in our lives, reading it at naming ceremonies and coming-of-age celebrations, at weddings and funerals. In the wake of shared disasters, too, we turn to poems for consolation.
Editing a print poetry journal draws one close to both truths. The task itself is both unprofitable and deeply rewarding. During our seventeen-year tenure at Poet Lore, which ends with this issue, we’ve had the opportunity to select, edit, and publish more than 3,000 pages of poetry. We’re grateful for the experience, which allowed us to work closely with so many gifted writers.
When Helen Clarke and Charlotte Porter founded Poet Lore in 1889, they described their aesthetic goal with humility and ardor. They acknowledged the “mystery of beauty” and wrote: “The heart of it cannot be plucked out by any editor or commentator. The approach to it…is a path one may search for as well as chance upon.”
How does one approach this mystery? As editors, we found that the best way to begin was by reading each submission we received without regard to reputation, seeking poems that unsettled and beguiled us—musical language with the urgency of direct address. To test our instincts at editorial meetings, we reviewed the poems we’d selected for discussion by reading them aloud to one another, listening for a sound that’s hard to describe but easy to discern. If we couldn’t hear it, we put the poem aside. But when a memorable poem fell short in ways we could address, we worked through revisions with the poet, a form of literary correspondence that was both detailed and expansive.
Looking back through the thirty-five issues of Poet Lore we’ve edited, we’re proud to note changes we made in the journal’s form and content. With coeditor Rick Cannon, who guided our work until his departure in 2006, we decided to use old photos on the cover, featuring images from the late 1900s for the first few years to underscore the magazine’s history. We reinstated an “Editors’ Page” to give voice to the journal’s aesthetic and cultural interests and offer readers an invitation to the issue. Taking the cover photo as a starting point, we explored a topic—from climate change to the nature of news—and connected it to poems that followed, which we arranged thematically, placing them in conversation with one another across the pages.
A year later, we inaugurated “Poets Introducing Poets,” in which an established poet introduced a portfolio of poems by a writer new to our pages. Contributing editor Tony Hoagland began the series by presenting the work of Adrian Blevins in 2003. Other featured poets included: Gregory Pardlo (2008), who won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Digest seven years later; Inupiaq-Inuit poet d g nanouk okpik (2010), author of Corpse Whale; and Tarfia Faizullah (2013), whose second book, Registers of Illuminated Villages, came out last year.
It took us longer to reengage the magazine in the essential work of translation. Poet Lore’s founders had made it their mission to present great world writers to American readers who may never before have heard their names. Among these were such luminaries as Frederic Mistral, whose poetry appeared in Poet Lore in 1890, fourteen years before he shared the Nobel Prize in Literature with another Poet Lore author, Jose Echegaray; Rainer Maria Rilke; Paul Verlaine; Rabindranath Tagore (a Nobelist in 1913); along with Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov, whose plays appeared in full in the journal’s pages. In its first two decades, Poet Lore published translations from scores of languages, including Icelandic, Gaelic, Yiddish, Armenian, Serbian, Bengali, Japanese, and Chinese. In 1914, Clarke and Porter wrote: “Poet Lore is introducing to its readers today the unknown geniuses who are to become world-famous tomorrow.” It seems a wild boast—until you read what they’d published.
At the advice of a former colleague, writer and translator Kyle Semmel, we opted for depth over breadth, choosing to publish a portfolio of poems by a single poet, rendered in English by a trusted translator. We began with Thomas E. Kennedy’s translations of Danish poet Dan Turell, whose expansive, jazz-inspired work held special appeal for American readers. Given the success of that first portfolio, we invited Suzanne M. Zweizig to join our small staff as translation editor. Under her guidance, Poet Lore has showcased the work of Melih Cevdet Anday (Turkey), U Tin Moe (Myanmar), Rira Abbassi (Iran), Idea Villarino (Paraguay), Anas Atkora (Togo), Ilja Kostovski (Macedonia), and Nadia Anjuman (Afghanistan).
Along with translation, Poet Lore was known from the start for its critical writing, which enriches the journal’s work to this day. On that front, our talented review editor, Jean Nordhaus, and her predecessors Gary Stein and the late Martin Galvin, brought our readers incisive book reviews in each issue along with occasional essays on a wide range of intriguing topics, including documentary poetry, personae, speculation as persuasion, and “the poetics of liquid.”
From the beginning, Poet Lore welcomed poetic sequences, verse narratives, and long dramatic forms. We carried the tradition forward in this century, publishing such ambitious works as Samiya Bashir’s “Coronography,” David Dominguez’s “To the Ghost of Cesar Chavez,” Leslie Ullman’s “The Transits of Saturn,” Greg Orfalea’s “Poem for the Unspeakable,” Jay Leeming’s “Mother Night,” Martha Collins’s “Broken Open,” Sherod Santos’s “I Was at One Time Close to Home,” Ben Jasnow’s “The Underworld,” and Christopher Presfield’s “Elegies for the Fallen,” an odyssey through the nation’s prison system.
We also had the privilege of publishing many superb poets for the very first time, including Reginald Dwayne Betts, whose poem “A Different Route” appeared in Poet Lore in 2004, and Chelsea Jennings, whose prize-winning collection is reviewed in this issue. The long list of writers whose early work we published includes Traci Brimhall, Andre Dimitrov, Alejandro Escude, Kerry James Evans, Lisa Beech Hartz, Rachel Mennies, Faisal Mohyuddin, Ladan Osman, Iain Haley Pollock, Ines P. Rivera Prosdocimi, Roger Sedarat, Tara Skurtu, Javier Zamora, and Maya Jewell Zeller. What these poets have in common is not a way of writing. What they have in common is the fact that an editor at Poet Lore read their work with the respect it deserved.
Last year we received an email from Shannon Spies, whose first published poem had just appeared in the magazine: “I wanted to take a moment to express my wonder and gratitude. I have been operating under the impression, for years now, that submitting poetry is a soul-crushing occupation that erases the personal. You have shown me that there is nothing more personal than taking a risk, having that risk acknowledged, and seeing one’s own, still-wanting work alongside pieces that just sing. Thank you so much.”
These words hold the “everything” this work has meant to us. We thank The Writer’s Center for having given us the chance to play a part in Poet Lore’s history.
—Jody Bolz & E. Ethelbert Miller