Welcome to April’s edition of “Dear Poetry Editor” at the Chicago Review of Books. This continuing series offers readers an introduction to editors who shape the content in literary magazines around the world. This month we hear from Matthew Zapruder, editor of the poetry column at the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Why Poetry, a book of prose, is forthcoming from Ecco Press in August 2017. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Carlos Williams Award, a May Sarton Award from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, TX. He is an associate professor and director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California, as well as an Editor at Large at Wave Books. He lives in Oakland, CA.
On Perspectives of Poetry
I think the biggest misconception some—maybe even a lot—of people have about poetry is that its job is to do what all other types of writing do. That is, to communicate information, tell a story, get an idea across, or communicate an emotional state. But since prose can do all those things too—almost always in a more direct way—it raises the question of why read or write poetry at all. I think poetry does something different from all other uses of language. Poems of course tell stories, communicate ideas, convince, argue, describe, etc. But poets only cause their poems to do those things for as long as is interesting and beautiful. By allowing ourselves to say no at any time to any of the obligations of language, poets free poems and language into a different capacity.
The publishing house I work for, Wave Books, seems to be well respected for getting out into the world work written by mid-career contemporary American poets that is innovative without being esoterically “experimental.” This year I am also serving as the editor of the poetry page of the New York Times Magazine. I don’t know the perception people have of the magazine, other than that it is attractively glossy in an understated way. I get the sense that people appreciate that I am trying to publish a variety of poems by poets with differing aesthetic approaches and from differing backgrounds, though I’m sure there are plenty of people who think I’m doing a terrible job. (Thankfully I don’t usually hear from those people, although occasionally they do take the time to email me and let me know what an idiot they think I am.) I feel my role as an editor for the the Times is to find as great a variety of recently published American poetry as I can without ever compromising the quality of the work. I hope I’ve done a good job so far. It’s hard to pick poems that will flourish in the magazine. The poem has to be on the shorter side, and, more important, has to present itself in some kind of way that will work coming out of a completely non-poetic context, and being read by people with little or no preparation in poetry. There are so many terrific poems that just don’t seem to me like they would function in this particular space. I wrote about this here.
I don’t know. I guess I need to feel a sense of necessity in a poem I am reading, some feeling that the poem exists to do something no other form of writing could do.
No. There are lots of things I wish I had published, that I either stupidly passed on, or just didn’t get the chance to read. But I don’t regret a single thing I have published, as an editor or poet. I look back on some of my own work I’ve published and think, I would never write that way now, I am a completely different person and poet. But I always feel I did the best I could at the time, and I was honest and even pretty stern with myself about what was good enough and what really mattered.
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Ruben Quesada is a poet and translator. His chapbook of poetry and translations, Revelations, is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. He teaches poetry for UCLA Writers' Program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He currently serves as the Executive Director of Arte Américas, one of the largest Latino cultural centers in California.