Welcome to the April 2018 edition of “Dear Poetry Editor” at the Chicago Review of Books. This ongoing series offers an introduction to editors who shape the content in literary magazines around the world. This month, we meet Lara Mimosa Montes, a poet and editor based in Minneapolis and New York. She holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her writing has previously appeared in Fence, BOMB, Boston Review, and elsewhere. She is a senior editor of Triple Canopy. Her first book, The Somnambulist, is available from Horse Less Press. She was born in the Bronx.
Based in New York, Triple Canopy has advanced a model for publication that encompasses digital works of art and literature, public conversations, exhibitions, and books since 2007. Issues are devoted to the collaborative production of bodies of knowledge around specific questions and concerns.
On Perspectives of Poetry
A poem does not need to be a discrete, contained object, nor does it need to have an epiphany or Truth with a capital T embedded in it to be legitimate. Sometimes a poem goes to a place where I, as a reader, cannot follow. And I think that’s beautiful, to let the poem vanish. If a poem’s meaning eludes you, maybe that’s your problem, rather than the fault of a poem or poet. I find myself frustrated by how legible poems have become, which is maybe to say also “teachable” or “translatable.” Like, since when did people, in order to promote their poetry books, start making teaching guides? The idea of putting something like that together, a reading aid, is like the opposite of poetry.
Furthermore, I have also been observing over the last few years how confessional or autobiographical poetry is “in” again, so people both inside and outside of the literary community are, at this moment, expecting “quality” work to connect with personhood, identity, and biography. And if a poem refuses to perform as such, is it any less “real”? By thrusting these kinds of expectations on a poem and demanding that it somehow connect to “the personal” life of the author, we approach poems with limited ways of reading, and, as a result, foreclose the kind of poems that can appear in the world. A poem can be a vector, a movement, or series of movements. It can be abstract. A query. It can also embrace a different meaning of the word personal, which is to say, private: it may not be for a reader to know immediately or ever what this poem is about or how its contents relate back to the author’s identity or lived experience, and that’s fine. Language passes through a body, and the poem is a document of that movement, that passing through—that ought to be personal enough.
In the past, when I was working as a reader for a different publication—one that did not pay writers—I have taken a Dudley Randall approach to poetry. Which is to say, my main goal was to champion aesthetic diversity. Even if I may not be the ideal reader for a poem, I would rather that poem or book of poems exist in the world than it not. Also, who am I to say that just because I don’t like this poem or that author, a certain work doesn’t deserve to be published? There are, however, degrees of dislike, but the dominant “Accept/Reject” model doesn’t really leave a lot of room for that.
So, in the past, I have felt like the least I could do in terms of contributing to the bigger literary picture was maintain a diverse literary ecology. Diversity, unfortunately, has been reduced to identity—but that’s not entirely what I mean. When I say diversity, I’m also referring to aesthetic diversity, difference, and style. That being said, I am personally excited by poems that challenge whatever we’ve been calling “form.” And I don’t mean sonnets and sestinas. For those reasons, I love the work of Bhanu Kapil, Cecilia Vicuña, and Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Now that I work at a publication that pays poets fairly (and not $25 for a poem either), I have a different relationship to the work I publish—I have to feel transformed by it. All the work that I’ve had the pleasure of editing so far at Triple Canopy has done nothing short of transforming me as a reader, writer, and a person.
What first drew me to Triple Canopy as a reader was the hybrid work they were publishing. I was excited by the fact that a performance artist could write an “essay” or that a poet could collaborate with another artist on a digital project that wasn’t a static .pdf, but a lively aesthetic object. Everyone is working between genres, and it feels gloriously promiscuous, I love it.
For the past two years, alongside my co-editors, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing and commissioning a select number of projects from our annual Call for Proposals—I enjoy reading other artists’ and writers’ ideas, especially when you get the impression that someone has been working on a really captivating idea for a while, but for whatever reason, the right opportunity hasn’t come along. Based on the submissions we receive through that, and the fact that so many of the applicants submit proposals for projects that would require them to work outside of their primary genre, readers gravitate to Triple Canopy because it’s an interdisciplinary publication, one that supports writers and artists in taking aesthetic risks they might not be supported in taking elsewhere.
I like to pride myself on being a meticulous editor and a deep reader, so I’ve never published someone else’s work and later regretted it. I also try and do my research about an author before publishing their work. But my own work? Definitely some regret there.
Earlier on in my writing career, I was too heavily invested in receiving recognition from others. I never went to an MFA program or really experienced a workshop environment, so I submitted poems as a way of receiving feedback from others. What’s fucked up is that I’ve had hardly any conversations with those who have both accepted or denied my work about my work. Submittable has really sped up the submission queue—no more two years of waiting to hear back from someone via snail mail, but unfortunately, it’s flattened the discourse to the extent that most people think editing poetry is a matter of saying yes or no, and asking for a bio. However, if you work for a journal that receives 300 submissions a month, and there are only three unpaid readers on board, what’s the workaround? A lot of unfinished, haphazard writing probably appears in the world as a result of this mad dash to publish.
It’s even worse if you’re a writer of color. White editors are on a mission to prove themselves as diverse, so they’ll take almost anything. I’ve seen many a great poet publish an unfinished work wondering to what extent was this person tokenized? Did they have a conversation with the editor about the work that was submitted, where it came from, where it’s going? I never want a writer to regret something I’ve accepted to publish of theirs, so I really focus on having conversations about work with not just the writer, but other editors, whenever possible, in order to ensure we’re holding one another to a higher ethical standard.
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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.