Dear Poetry Editor

Rachel Mennies on Shallow Poetry: “I’d Rather Jump in an Ocean”

A conversation with the poet, professor, and AGNI editor.

In May’s edition of Dear Poetry Editor, we meet the dynamic and talented Rachel Mennies. Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, the 2014 winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry and finalist for a National Jewish Book Award, and the chapbook No Silence in the Fields. Mennies took over for Robert Fink in 2016 as the series editor of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry at Texas Tech University Press. She teaches writing at Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of AGNI’s editorial staff.

On Perspectives of Poetry

When I teach close reading to my undergraduate students, they often say they think poetry tries to hide its meanings from a reader—that a poem’s message should be secreted out as if deciphering a riddle. Because I teach mostly freshmen, many of them have just completed a lot of standardized testing in prep for college, and these tests presented them with, for example, four-part multiple-choice questions about what an image or device in a poem means. This meant they needed to hone a skill of interpretation that pushed them towards “correctness”—a this, not that approach to a poem’s meaning. I love uncapping the lid from this approach and filling the air with the risk-driven possibilities of close reading. I try to teach students to interpret poems with one hand reaching towards surprise and the other hand grounded in the text, and I find that this approach allows them to honor their own interior sense of what a poem means, as opposed to norming it toward one “correct” meaning, while still rooting that interpretation in the poem’s language (a student once pointed out that I use the word evidence every class).

Within the poetry community, I see an ongoing negotiation happening about poetry’s reach “versus” its depth, as if we’re constantly resizing the same pool. Poetry can either be deep, letting a few dive deeply to describe what they see; or else it’s shallow, where we’re all barely immersed past our ankles. I’d rather jump in an ocean, even if it makes my own body nearly invisible. If I’ve changed my mind about anything poetry-related after turning thirty, it’s about my own tastes and preferences both as reader and writer. Prescriptive borders only close us off to what we might later desire—or to what we might later create.

On Poetry

On my first read, I’m right there with Dickinson (“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” she wrote, “I know that is poetry”). I’ll add something that the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers shared during a reading she gave at AWP a few years back: the audience was murmuring and gasping at her poems, and at one point she paused and said: “thank you for the church sounds.” A poem I love usually leaves me bodily reacting like that: I’m making those church sounds, or rubbing my temples, or throwing down the book in gratitude or surprise. As an editor, I know I’ve found a book I need to publish when lines from its poems show up again in my head while I’m brushing my teeth, or during in the middle of a conversation, or while I’m doing the dishes.

After that first read—once I’ve quieted down and “replaced” the top of my head—I find that a more expansive, interrogatory space clears for me. I re-read as an editor and as a reviewer in order to push forward and challenge those initial explosive reactions and to let a poem show me something I assuredly missed on a first read. Twitter’s doing everything in its power to make me a terrible reader—I mean its setup and outlay, the rapid scroll, the sheer amount of text put forth in such a short time, the quick expectation for engagement, the return volley of a “take.” Because of that, nowadays, if I’m reading for any other purpose besides personal enjoyment, any sort of “deep read,” I leave behind the screen.

On Publishing

The Walt McDonald series is the only poetry series that Texas Tech University Press publishes, and it’s a first-book series, which means that I’m able to work exclusively with emerging writers—a focus which I love beyond all measure. It’s a prize that finds manuscripts through editorial solicitation and not through a contest. I’m not sure what impressions others have of the series beyond reviews of the individual books, but I’m proud of this model—which I inherited and didn’t establish myself, importantly, but I’m proud to continue—because it allows me to engage with literary magazine editors to see what poems they’ve loved in the previous year, and to search through issues for poets who’ve not yet published their first book. It means getting the chance to read a lot of lit mags as part of my role, and it also means that those we solicit don’t have to pay a fee to submit their work to us.

Submission fees are, to me, a complicated editorial practice, and I wrote about these thoughts earlier this year for The Millions. The data I collected for the article show that fees will probably remain an integral practice in the poetry publishing landscape until other revenue sources become more feasible or dependable, which means that editors and submitters both need to have more conversations about how to make the practice equitable for all parties involved. Editors should always ask what structural hurdles a writer might need to leap over before their book arrives at our attention, and then interrogate whether we’re doing enough to find writers who can’t surmount those hurdles.

On Regret

No—but I’ve missed the chance to solicit books I wanted to publish. There’s also many books I’ve asked for after they’ve been acquired elsewhere or books I’ve read that I’ve daydreamed writing the foreword for as their series editor, just because I loved the book so much. I see this longing as a purely good energy: as an indication that I’m in ongoing conversation with other editors. It comes with the added benefit of celebrating those poets once the news of their work goes public, too.

As a submitter, though, with my own poetry, I’ve definitely published poems before they were ready and later regretted it. I blame my own ambition here, but also my early failures not to heed my own sense of a poem’s doneness, and instead let the (false) urgency of a publication credit get the better of me. I know a lot of poets who’ve had this experience, so I offer it up here in solidarity.

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1 comment on “Rachel Mennies on Shallow Poetry: “I’d Rather Jump in an Ocean”

  1. “A poem I love usually leaves me bodily reacting like that: I’m making those church sounds, or rubbing my temples, or throwing down the book in gratitude or surprise.” I love this sentiment! I also greatly appreciate the frank conversation about the pressure to publish work before it’s ready, and the regret that might follow. What a fantastic read.

    Like

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