How to read a literary magazine (print)

Either immediately, because you’re procrastinating about some other task, or after a long period of dusty avoidance, as if reading poetry were a chore. Bad poet. This summer, after nearly six months in New Zealand, the pile is high and dust rules.

Primed for irritation, because so many poems will be dull and yet the editors chose them over your brilliant productions. Even when a poem catches you, there’s another kind of irritation, because you want to follow that voice but turn the page and the spell dissolves. This makes you a hypocritical magazine submitter, because you prefer individual collections. Bad, bad poet.

Skimming analytically: what is great poet A, or overrated poet B, or obscure genius poet C up to now? What is the new editor choosing, how is the old editor’s taste evolving, are any trends beginning or ending? This is interesting to you as a poetry nerd (term encompassing scholar, teacher, fan). It is also important in a practical way: you will send poems to magazines X, Y, and Z again, despite the irritation described above. You can’t control how your poems are behaving (long poems with zombies, really?), but you can look for overlap between what your obsessions and what editors seem to like lately. Notice it’s not really long poems in the Thanksgiving Horror genre.

Hopefully, because you really do love poems and all these magazines will contain at least one astonishing thing that lowers your blood pressure again.

Pieces that made me stop skimming and fall into their gravity:

  • In the Crazyhorse 50th Anniversary Issue, Bob Hicock’s lipsticked tulips and Mary Ruefle’s daffodil. In the latter: “He was pained to see me with no other career/ than my emotions about things” plus a surprising, perfect last line. If I quoted the ending, it wouldn’t work; you have to read the poem first.
  • Photographs and an essay by Thomas Sayers Ellis in the July/ August Poetry. Everything Ellis publishes is surprising, smart, and urgent; he totally deserves to get into the Norton anthologies before I do. “I am aiming for invisibility when I take a picture much more so than when writing a poem. I want to be seen when I write and seeing when I take photographs.”
  • Stacey Waite’s imperative to “Consider the monkeys” in the Summer 2011 Massachusetts Review. You need to consider those monkeys without making eye contact because each is “a time bomb of bite and scratch.” Riveting anarchy everywhere. And “In the end it’s my voice that makes people stare”: holy babble and doodle, Northrop Frye!
  • Mid-American 31.1 is a really great issue, like that Crazyhorse I mentioned. Although it seems incestuous to write poems about teaching poems, I love the whole subgenre—Wendy Barker’s entries here (not the ones I’ve linked to, but clearly from the same series) are great. The poem that hit me like paddle electrodes, though, was Erinn Batykefer’s “Spiderbaby”: “In the gore-spattered hell of the delivery room, / we counted: ten fingers, ten toes./ Ten legs.” Mental note: short poems in the Delivery Room Horror Genre welcome here.

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