Monday, October 31, 2011

Coffee with the Editor

In the absence of a good coffee shop where we can put our elbows on the table and talk away the morning, I'm making myself available on the blog this month to respond to your questions and comments about the journal and poetry at large. What do you value about the BPJ? What would you like to know about our editorial process? Is having a print journal to hold in your hand still important to you: (Don't worry--we're not abandoning the printed page.) What more might we do to sustain the community of readers and poets we serve?
Lee Sharkey, Co-editor


  1. Hi, Lee,
    Thanks for inviting us for a chat. I definitely like having a print journal to hold in my hand and highlight and write notes in. I'm starting to enjoy on-line sites, too, but they can't yet replace the printed page for me.

    I'd like you to print several poems from the BPJ that you love and talk about what features they have that make you feel that way.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, NWG. For a starter, here’s a poem that stays with me (one measure of love, yes?) from the Spring, 2007, issue of the journal. It’s by Erin Malone:

    The Winter He Is One

    Near the stables
    a trough
    An iron bathtub
    Like a horse he had to
    break me
    his hand the star
    my lowered
    my lowered
    eyes lord
    & bring me back
    Here the fence
    There the field

    This poem begins by compelling my attention by painting in a few sure brushstrokes a scene that concludes with the surprising “iced”—delicious on the tongue. The momentary ambiguity in the line that follows, before we realize it is the speaker who is being broken, heightens my alertness as I suss out what is going on here, the poem an extended metaphor for the process by which a person is tamed into parenthood by the act of caring for a child. And yet this very process of subduing our own desires for the sake of another deepens our capacity to love. This is a wise poem. It feels its way forward (“my lowered / eyes / my lowered / eyes lord”); it moves elliptically, by suggestion, arriving in the final couplet-like lines at a reverence that makes me well up with the memories of how profoundly caring for a baby changed me. A more direct expression of the same experience would, I believe, have fallen victim to sentimentality.

  3. You have a fine magazine, whose main strength beyond the obvious excellence of much of what you publish is that you keep it free of the restraints of any school, coterie, or set of attitudes. Salud and flourish, D. E. Steward

  4. I appreciate your observation, Dave. A discriminating catholicity has always been our intention. The degree to which we achieve that freedom from what you aptly call “restraints” is due I think to our editorial process: John and I, who have fifty-nine years’ experience on the BPJ between us, are the first and second screeners, respectively. We’ve learned to read a lot of poetic languages over the years and to let go of our aesthetic stances. I daresay less slips by us than it might more inexperienced readers. From that point on, selection is a collaborative process. Our editorial board consists of talented writers who bring their knowledge of the craft to their reading; we listen, we argue, and we learn from each other. Poets have come to expect that receptiveness from us, so we receive submissions from across a broad range of contemporary aesthetics, and the impulse reinforces itself. The poems are our teachers as well.

  5. NWG,
    Another poem that leaps to mind appears in the current issue. There's a link to it on the website. Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.'s "Albania" is written in a form I know as a piyyut--originally a Jewish liturgical form--in which every line ends with the same word. In this case, the word is "Albania"; the poem is an account of the speaker's trip to Albania or, more accurately, of her encounter with the Albania of the mind. During the Cold War, Albania was off limits to Western travels; this matter-of-fact narrative takes us on a hilarious journey to that once-forbidden territory, all the while provoking thought about the blind spots of our desire.

  6. You've taught me so much, Lee. Only after reading your commentary did I begin to fully appreciate "The Winter He Is One." The title and "his hand the star" support your analysis, but without your explication, I might have missed the insights and beauty of this piece. I love "iced," too.
    I've never heard of a piyyut. Thank you for taking me back to this poem for several re-readings and even more enjoyment.
    I wish your comments were a regular part of the BPJ, maybe for one poem an issue.

  7. NWG,
    You've put your finger on the intention of the Poet's Forum, to make a platform for poets to write about their poems in a way that lets the reader further into the richness of the text. Next month, Bruce Bond will moderate a discussion of his elegy "Audubon" in the Winter 2011/12 issue.

  8. And the Poet's Forum is extremely effective. Witness Michael Broek's recent illuminations. But that's something different from having an editor,
    someone other than the poet, explain what s/he understood, felt, learned,
    from a poem. The response from that special perspective is what I seek, not in place of, but in addition to the poet's own insights.

  9. I read John Rosenwald's review in the current issue "Bad News and Good" and found his comments on "anti-elegy" to be quite interesting. He writes: "And though the poems remain elegiac, they often become anti-elegies as well, as if even to express grief means to move beyond it." I wonder what your perspective as an editor is: have you seen a transformation in the elegiac mode in contemporary poetry? What do you think of the term "anti-elegy"?

    Thanks for this forum!

  10. NWG--
    I've chosen to stay out of almost all of the Poet's Forum conversations to date to leave unmediated space for direct conversation between poets and readers, but your desire to get the editor's take has me reconsidering. Maybe next month I'll join in. Thanks.

  11. JJ,
    A fair proportion of the poems that come to us over the transom and in books sent for review continue to be elegies in the familiar sense, that is, expressions of personal grief and reminiscence. Among humans, loss is perpetually self-renewing, so that shouldn't be a surprise. It's been interesting over the last several years to observe the growth of the the political and ecological elegy as subgenres. At their worst they amount to not much more than cynical misanthropy or a defeated quietism (John’s complaint), but when they work they may connect political/personal/historical/cultural/scientific insight to evoke the depth of our potential loss. Thus they seed an alternative means of conceiving a future. One small poem that does this powerfully for me is Karen Lepri’s “Wave,” from the Fall 2010 issue. Unfortunately, the poem's spacing won't reproduce in the blog, so I redirect you through this link to the archive:
    How tender the final stanza makes me feel toward our foolish species.

    I’ve forwarded your comment to John, who may want to weigh in here himself, on the term "anti-elegy" and more.

  12. I've added a link to "Wave" at on the right hand side of the page.

  13. JJ,
    What I was aiming at has a bit ofhistory. I began reviewing the BAP series three years ago, when our predecessor, Marion Stocking, now deceased, no longer was able to continue the tradition of reviewing that series that she began with its first appearance in 1988. In both 2009 and 2010 I noticed a distinctive elegiac note to many poems in the volumes and thus in the volumes as a whole; I identified that tone as perhaps tied to the end of the Bush era. Kevin Young, in his editor's introduction to this year's volume, attached the same observation to this year's selection. And it's true; yet I sensed another element in that tone, a sense that in mourning we were moving on--as
    poets, and as a nation. I knew no term for such a genre, so I tentatively tried "anti-elegy," and then of course discovered the term was scarcely new, but I stuck with it in the absence of any other.

    So, yes, I do see a "transformation in the elegiac mode in contemporary poetry," as you put it. I don't have much of an opinion about the term "anti-elegy," though it seems to me to give a sense of both the commitment to a tradition and a move to go beyond it, and I do think that the "anti" part of the term is right: submerged in the superficial elegy is a rejection of the elegy. You've read the review, so you know which poems I focused on, but let me go beyond what I could say there even about the poems I mentioned.

    Robert Hass clearly grieves for the loss of his brother, but the relationship (as reflected in the poem) was difficult enough so that there's a
    sense of relief in the new absence of tension. Similarly, though C. K. Williams on one level is nostalgic for the past in his "Hundred Bones" poem, his workimplicitly involves a critique of the entire western tradition or even of the
    warring tradition both East and West, a critique which while bemoaning a certain loss rejoices in the discovery of Basho and a tradition which rejects war. Steven Yenser's quiet elegy for James Merrill almost ignores Merrill and never
    names him. But you got the point long since. Interesting to me that all these poems are by men. But the most stunning example of the anti-elegy for me was Patricia Smith's crown of sonnets on Motown. Here the anti-elegy becomes more acute. While paying full tribute to the music, Smith finally comes down fairly heavily on the way in which she let Motown distract and delude her and her (female?) contemporaries.

    Personally I'm an American optimist, so I hear in these poems a regret for what is lost but a desire to move ahead, grieving but resolute. The presence of President Obama in this year's volume, explicit in some cases, more subtle elsewhere, might raise similar questions: the
    early enthusiasm of 2008 has given way for many to disappointment, but before bemoaning his political death, one might look for a political vision that goes beyond the simplistic hopes following his election and, while grieving that
    paradise didn't arrive overnight, get on with the future. 2012 should be an interesting year.