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What Does a Poet Actually Do?

What Does a Poet Actually Do?

This penultimate post of the Dear Poetry Editor series introduces you to Rebecca Morgan Frank, the author of Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country and The Spokes of Venus, both from Carnegie Mellon University Press, and Little Murders Everywhere, a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her poems have appeared in such places as The New Yorker, Ploughshares, APR, and Guernica. She is the Jacob Ziskind Poet in Residence at Brandeis University and the co-founder and editor of the online literary magazine Memorious.  Her chapter about the history of Memorious and online literary magazines can be found in The Little Magazine in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

On Perspectives of Poetry

I often joke that when you tell people you are a poet that they look at you as if you have two heads. I used to think this was judgment, but I came to understand that it was often confusion. When you say “novelist” or “composer” or “sculptor,” for example, I think there is more of a general understanding that there is work involved, that the making of a novel or a score or a sculpture involves knowledge, skill, time, effort. I think there is a lot of mystery and misconception about where poems come from, how they get made; it can be hard for people to understand poetry writing as a craft.  What, I think people often wonder, does a poet actually do? I ask my new poetry students if they would expect anyone to be able to pick up the violin and play immediately, or a filmmaker to be able to make a film as soon as they are handed a camera. Perhaps the advent of the smartphone makes this comparison even more useful: visual language is now as accessible as verbal, but that doesn’t mean that everything that gets made from it is good and worth a larger audience.

The misconception I see inside the community sometimes is that there is some sort of central “po-biz” (I hate that word) that drives all poetry decisions. There are so many of us who are poetry editors sitting alone in rooms reading openly and looking for poems to love.

On Poetry

I have always loved Frost’s “if it is a wild tune, it is a poem,” and of course, Dickinson’s description of poetry as something that causes a bodily reaction: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” My favorite poems often speak to me through their music, which to me is a bodily response, and through the mind at work in the poem, the rhetorical shape of the poem.

But the more I read and teach and edit, the more I embrace how expansive poetry is, how the poems I love the most in a personal sense are a small part of a larger ecosystem of poems that can interest me for their innovations, their timeliness, their strangeness, etc. Or can be valuable even if they don’t interest me at all! What it comes down to is that I’m in agreement with James Dickey: “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe.”

Perhaps all of this quoting of other poets reflects another thing poetry is to me: it is the discovery that others have captured what I cannot. It is this magical communication across times, cultures, places, sensibilities. Being an editor is a delightful investigation into varied ways of knowing, seeing, and exploring the world and the act of making.

On Publishing

One unifying response to Memorious has been that since our beginning, in 2004, people seemed to love, and find beautiful, the really simple design that Brian Green, our original webmaster and one of my two co-founders of the magazine, created for us. I wanted the magazine to have the things I enjoy in print, including a clear table of contents; poetry and prose content pages uninterrupted by any sort of ads or extra text or image; and the ability to just “turn” the page– in our case, through an arrow button.  The other unique feature that we are known for is our Art Song Contest.  I invite a guest composer to select the winning poems to set in an original composition. We have live performances –our most recent ones have been at the University of Nottingham in the UK and at the Poetry Foundation here in Chicago–and then we record the pieces for inclusion in the magazine.

In general, I think we are perceived as a serious venue for poetry, particularly highly lyrical poems with a strong sense of music and a certain “attention to form” as people say. Because we have had a rotating cast of fiction editors, our fiction section has been more eclectic. Overall, I think people also know us as a place for publishing emerging writers who go on to have a lot of success, including such poets as Ishion Hutchinson, Tarfia Faizullah, Maggie Smith, and fiction writers like Paul Yoon, Nina McConigley, Joanna Luloff, and Sonya Larson, who is beginning to make her mark now. The lists could go on and on!  I think people tend to know us through the writers whose work they love.

On Regret

There is a controversial story to be found right in the prose section of the first issue from 2004. The story from “JT Leroy” was published before the outing of the true identity of the writer, Laura Albert. This literary hoax was the subject of a lot of news stories during our second year of publishing, but we took some solace in knowing that magazines we admired, such as Zoetrope: All Story and McSweeney’s had also published Albert as Leroy before the news broke and that many famous people were “duped.” We didn’t take the content down because I strongly believe in the archival integrity of keeping each issue intact, just as if it were a print issue.

I have regretted missing out on poems that have been snatched up by magazines whose reading process is faster than ours, but I also love discovering those poems in print elsewhere. I still feel an investment in any good poem having a home in the world, even if it isn’t with us. If there’s one thing that I wish poets could know or understand more is that their poems are having rich lives out there as they are being read by readers and editors, even if we can’t take everything, and even if we don’t always have the time to write individual notes.


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