Fighting about poems: Shenandoah NZ Diary, Part II

Received by Email While Guest-Editing

I reject your rejection. You are not qualified
to cast me off. I’m a luminary: let me direct
your attention to an interstellar anthology.
You, sir or madam, have provoked a righteous
snit. A catastrophic reversion of my recent
surgery. You institutionalized me. My well-
being’s been battered by bad form letters.
Really, you made me very sad. And angry.
Sad, angry, sad, like stop-motion photography,
the sun rising, flaming, cooling, doused
with all my fondest hopes. You sack of dolts.
I thought we were friends. What a joke
your life is, what a waste of gravity. I project thee
into orbit now, thick-pate lightweight. Respectfully.

So, I wanted a new experience—creative, professional, pedagogical—and I got it, with a vengeance (although I’m hoping I haven’t inspired acts of vengeance). In May I sent out a call for work for a special Shenandoah poetry portfolio to appear in February 2013. By the September 1 deadline we had 103 packets, mostly 5 poems per author, from writers all over New Zealand and a few Aotearoans in exile. When I say “all over,” I really mean a high number from the Wellington area and a smattering from each of the other regions; my network is Wellington-based and I was only partially successful getting the word out more widely. Still, that’s a lot of poetry, and Rod Smith, Shenandoah’s Editor-in-Chief, told us we can publish a maximum of twenty-five.

The intermittent “we” in the above paragraph includes my co-editors Drew Martin and Max Chapnick. Both are senior undergraduates—although I have been suspicious for years about graduate student gatekeepers at other magazines filtering out unfashionable poems, poems that allude to sources beyond their own reading, and poems about aging bodies and other transformations born of getting older. In fact, I did like the submissions about parenthood and middle-aged chagrin more than Drew and Max did, and they liked poems of youthful urgency more than I tended to. I wanted to work with them, though, partly because of these differences. They’re different from each other, too—Drew, a musician, is drawn to oral energy and Max to allusive, intellectual stuff—but they’re both talented, opinionated, and forthright. I thought it would be clarifying to fight over poems, defending what we loved and finding ways to articulate our disappointments.

It turned out that we agreed on almost nothing. Through late August and the first week of September we read all the packets individually, marking them yes, no, and maybe. Max was the soft-hearted maybe-man while Drew and I had larger “yes” and “no” piles. Unfortunately, they weren’t the same piles. In in our first meeting, we discovered that only three authors had inspired unanimous yeses, and in those packets we were drawn to different poems. We then met twice a week for four or five weeks to wrangle each other into aesthetic submission. We came to agreement on seventeen-ish and the rest was bargaining: “you can have this, if I can have that.” Sometimes a weak line was a sticking point and we agreed to accept the poem while encouraging revision of the trouble-spot. I’ve gratefully received suggestions on my own poems from generous editors at Poet Lore, Poetry, Agni and other mags; it always seems like a sign of good editing to me and I wanted to imitate it. I’m thankful even when a rejection comes with a suggestion. Editors have overwhelming jobs, usually on top of other, paying jobs. When they show that much interest in your work, it’s flattering.

I feel good about our issue-in-progress, but for better or worse, this isn’t the issue I would have assembled by myself. I have some regrets over rejected poems. I liked a number of pieces whose virtues I never managed to articulate convincingly enough to my co-editors. One effect of the process, though, that’s probably good: my co-editors were much less cowed by big names, and not having met the submitters, were more impartial than I. (I had several crises—“Right, right, the poem has problems but we can’t reject HER/HIM!”—and they just shot me skeptical looks and waited for me to stop hyperventilating). They talked me into accepting a few poems they love but I merely respect; this is a collaboration so everyone has to win and lose sometimes. They also showed me the power in a few pieces I wouldn’t have read twice.  The result: some good work will be left out of the issue because no one fell in love with it. Every poem that willappear had a fervent champion.

Other side-effects: at least for the moment, I’m smarter about revising my own poems, because it’s easier to see what’s reject-able about them. I understand better than ever that good isn’t good enough: you have to provoke delight, passion. And, reading responses to our rejections—notes that are variously chagrined, gracious, and indignant—I can see I might not have the stomach to edit full-time. It’s hard to turn good poems away, especially when the respondents are gracious. It’s even harder to shrug off the angry replies, knowing how often I’ve swallowed the same frustration. Too much fighting! The poem up top was easy to write, not because I feel superior to my irate respondents, but because I identify with them utterly.

Poetic navigation

The kids, you’ll be shocked to hear, haven’t been especially receptive to the Yeats I’ve been reading aloud over dinner. Madeleine thinks the Maud Gonne poems consign Yeats to creepy stalker territory and isn’t nearly as impressed as I am by the beauty of it all—and I was moving chronologically, so I didn’t even get to the infuriating “A Prayer for My Daughter.” I think when you know a place through art, really visiting is an experience full of layers and facets that make the grass much more brilliantly green. They’re skeptics, although maybe I can console myself that they’ll be better Yeatsians one day after having seen Thoor Ballylee. Since our Pacific adventures, after all, they love recognizing New Zealand and Hawai’ian landscapes in films and they’re much more fervent about Flight of the Conchords.

I’m obsessed with the difference it makes to visit literature’s sacred sites. I’m not sure if I’m a better critic or teacher of Emily Dickinson since touring her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, but I have a different feel for her poetry, what those garden references and domestic metaphors mean. An early pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—H.D.’s home turf—bore fruit for Chris, leading to an article on her handling of missionary and Lenape history in The Gift. Visiting Aotearoa New Zealand was my biggest conversion experience. That trip had a massive payoff in my understanding of and commitment to poetry from that part of the world. I’m no expert but at least I know what I don’t know, and nearly all of it had been invisible to me for most of my career, poetry full of birds and foods and expressions and geological formations I wouldn’t have been able to recognize, much less pronounce. Now teaching poems from places I have no first-hand experience makes me wonder: what incredibly basic, important scraps of context am I missing?

Hence, in a few days, our first trip to Ireland. I have a long-term commitment to the place. My maternal grandfather’s people, the Cains, were Irish exiles in Liverpool, so my mother grew up listening to fairy stories and her father’s Irish tenor (he died when she was a teenager). She never visited the country, though, and associates it, I think, with shame and anger as well as music and storytelling; to be Irish in Liverpool was to be brutally, unromantically poor. I grew up in New Jersey, attending Catholic schools where Irish connections are fetishized, so I was delighted to find out, one St. Patrick’s Day, that I had a proper claim on those green bagels. Although there was little Irish poetry beyond Yeats in my own education, working through it with students is now part of my job description.

The British & Irish Poetry course is scheduled for this winter and I know I’ll teach it better once I’ve listened to the Irish birds. I have a more particular mission, though: to track down some of the places Paula Meehan writes about in Painting Rain. I suspect that locating any poem is basically impossible but wonder what I’ll learn by trying.

Meehan has a suite of poems about St. Stephen’s Green, which even a confused American should be able to find. What about all the lost and damaged sites, though, like the meadow beneath the housing development she laments in “Death of a Field”? In what sense can you even get there from here? Placing poems fully would involve time-travel and other spectacular feats, since poets may layer into a single poem impressions gathered over years, or things they’ve simply imagined. What about, too, where a poet does the writing, revising, first public reading?

This year I wrested possession of our study from Chris (actually, he gave it to me, and my verb reflects a guilty sense of triumph). The tall maple outside the window and House Mountain in the distance kept entering my poems—while I wrote a poem a day during April, the tree went from stark branches through first-green-is-gold to full leaf, and the mountain’s face fluctuated from sharp purple to utterly veiled by cloud and smoke. Both became poetry triggers even when I was writing about very different situations. Then a massive June storm tore the tree in half. Its former canopy, though, persists in the poems’ virtual space; I recreate some version of that maple’s shade whenever I reenter, revise them. That’s part of why I wrote them, right, to preserve what I didn’t know I was about to lose?

Talk, talk

Several times since I arrived in New Zealand, people have characterized my manner as refreshing and open. Leaving aside my obscure alarm at the word “refreshing”—am I reminding people of American soft drinks?—I think a lot about what that comment means, especially since at home, on the east coast of the U.S., I’m told I seem reserved. Because the Kiwis I talk to are mainly poets, references to conversational style often lead to a discussion of American poetry versus poetry in New Zealand, sometimes with Australia or England thrown in as a third term.

Although these writers learned a British canon at school (if they were taught much poetry at all), they read a fair amount of American verse. It’s not the same selection you’d see on a U.S. shelf. Robert Creeley, who spent a fair amount of time in New Zealand, is important; poets identified with the Language School visited and influenced the Auckland scene; several women poets say that the daring verse of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds holds great power for them. American music reverberates in local writing. In Anna Jackson’s American Poetry and Poetics course at Victoria, a wavy line connects Ezra Pound to Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Carson. There are threads between those three, but one link is their expatriatism and ambivalence about national identity. I don’t know many U.S. poets and scholars who read Pacific verse as widely and thoughtfully, but when they do, it’s often in the context of postcolonial studies. I also see strong mutual interest between some indigenous American and Maori and Pacific writers, though getting the books across the water can be a challenge.

Since Bill Manhire has written about nearly every issue that interests me in New Zealand poetry, here’s an excerpt from his take on the relevance of U.S. poets to New Zealand writing, from the 1987 essay “Breaking the Line”: “I want to mention one other aspect of Whitman’s poetry which I find important – and this is the way in which he offers what he writes as a conversation with the reader… This idea of the poem as conversation, as intimate address from writer to reader, has been very important in American poetry. I think you can see signs of it in the work of several New Zealand writers since the 1960s.”  The rest of the essay is well-worth reading; it gives a useful account, for example, of the particular anthologies of American verse that reached these islands in the 60s and 70s. His comment about conversation, though, particularly interests me because it’s a key term in how I’ve come to define community. A sense of belonging is a side-effect of frequent, substantive talk among a group of people, often via multiple media. Talk might not always result in a “we-feeling,” but it’s probably a prerequisite.

 The problem with thinking about poetry as conversation is that it’s generally one-sided, not responsive to talk-back. Yes, living poets exchange drafts and those verses exhibit cross-influence. Page poets revise for their editors and performance poets adjust their set-lists for live audiences. I’m guessing that writers just as often get a charge of connection, though, from the solitary reading of printed text by authors long dead. Whitman, eerily, addresses future readers, reversing the usual flow, and perhaps Manhire is correct that this is an American way of writing. The talkiness of some contemporary U.S. verse owes a debt to Whitman. There’s a surreal, jumpy, elliptic mode that’s popular too, though. And a stream of sound-driven poetry that captures my ear.  

While I worry this over, I notice that I sound increasingly strange to myself, my vowels and r’s oddly exaggerated. Not bubbly and corn-syrup sweet, though, and I haven’t yet confessed any family traumas on syndicated talk shows or reality TV. Why are my poem-drafts developing that self-correcting tic that started with Bishop (say it!)? Who do I think I’m talking to?