Thanks to Genevieve DeLeon for today’s behind the scenes look into the literary magazine Poet Lore. She graduated from Columbia University in 2010 with a B.A. in English Literature. Thereafter, she worked for the Manhattan-based Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency, until returning home two years ago and beginning work with The Writer’s Center as managing editor of Poet Lore.
The Shape a Journal Carves
Sometimes, the figure a contemporary poetry journal cuts is one of a platform for a conversation that exists more loudly outside its pages than on them. It can feel as if the published object is an artifact of a relatively complete idea of what is interesting or surprising work in the field today. Like a Joseph Cornell box, the magazine presents its pieces as found objects, carefully chosen and arranged. In these instances, editors seem more curators of sensibility than individuals charged with the preparation and refinement of texts, which together might do more than exhibit or illustrate. When Chloe Yelena Miller kindly opened her blog to this post, it struck me I’d have a chance to introduce her readers to Poet Lore, the journal I work for, and the shape it carves in the small journal landscape.
Poet Lore is a book-sized poetry journal published twice a year by The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Each issue contains new work from some 60 poets, along with essays on poetry and reviews of new collections. Founded in 1889 by two Shakespearean scholars, Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, Poet Lore sought to fill a void. In a day when, as Charlotte Porter put it, "the static and the has-been rather than the dynamic and coming-into-birth constituted the measure in criticism," Poet Lore championed standards that “relate all aesthetic expression to evolving life." The founding ladies read widely across languages and styles and opened their pages to little-known writers that are now widely-recognized.
In recent decades, Poet Lore's editors have proven similarly prescient, publishing the first poems of such poets as Carolyn Forché, Kim Addonizio, and Terrence Hayes. Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller, Poet Lore’s current executive editors, are both established poets in their own right and have served the journal in this capacity for over ten years.
If one aspect of the journal is responsible for the shape Poet Lore carves, it's that the editors of Poet Lore take a rare ownership of the poems they accept. They read every poem that is submitted and accept 16 from the nearly 1,000 submissions that reach our offices each month. At times, they make such dramatic editorial suggestions as to warrant this wording in their correspondence with poets: “We imagine you’d prefer to see this elsewhere in its original form, but, if not, please consider….” Their “meddling” presents poets with important decisions about their work—who has a say in a poem? Who can better see what it should be? It's a matter of trust and likeness of intention between the poet and editor—and a number of poets feel overly challenged and perhaps, even, not properly understood. But many rejoice in the careful attention such editorial suggestions require.
The editors' method has a two-fold effect: it means the poems in a given issue (and, relatively speaking, in the issues published over their ten year tenure) are glossed with a similar lacquer. Because each poem is tilled with editorial labor for fruits of a certain maturity, poems from established poets and poems from younger poets can stand on the same firm ground. It's what A.B. Spellman talked about when he said Poet Lore “gives new voices a place to sing and old voices a place to harmonize.” So, one effect is equalizing—these poets are not speaking in the same register—their work represents a great diversity of style and form—but they are sounding at the same volume.
The other effect is related. Because the editors have invested themselves in what the poems have to say and how they say it, they can then arrange these pieces in an arc of their own narrative. In each issue, the editors use the poets’ work to craft a reader’s experience towards certain revelatory moments. The poems speak to each other and have a directional push, just as they do in a collection of one poet’s work; the issue is meant to be read cover to cover. The fingerprint of the editors is made transparent in the Editors' Page, where themes and frameworks are named. If the set-up seems manipulative, it speaks to the fact of the editors working from within their skill set as poets. The crafting of an issue is always a creative act, but, I believe, our editors use their process to draw closer to their own ideas of beauty and truth. Their close-listening to each poem's music is as much a service to them as it is to the poets.
Poet Lore has just released its Spring/Summer 2013 issue. In addition to poems by such poets as Michael S. Harper, Rachel Mennies, Rita Dove, Kate Angus, and Thomas Hawks, it includes a yearly feature, "World Poets in Translation." This feature presents a portfolio of poems by 20th-century Turkish poet Melih Cevdet Anday in translation by poet Sidney Wade and Efe Murad. Please pick up an issue online at poetlore.com—or send your poems our way—to learn first-hand about this team’s heartfelt work.