This final edition of Dear Poetry Editor introduces you to Josh Roark, the editor of Frontier Poetry and Palette Poetry. Roark received his MFA from Antioch University L.A., and his work can be found in The Windhover, Fourth & Sycamore, and other magazines. He lives and writes with his wife Jo in Los Angeles.
On Perspectives of Poetry
I began taking poetry seriously in college, as an undergrad. I was young and cynical, broadly addicted to unhealthy behavior and unhealthy ideas, smart in all the wrong ways, and caught on the rhythm of deep depression. Poetry was a solitary endeavor then—a community of ghosts and me: Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Poe, and Whitman. Primarily poets that looked like me, felt like me, perceived the world in a language like my own. They and their poetry comforted, but only so much as the voices of ghosts can.
Getting my MFA, becoming an editor, working with our team of readers—this transformed what poetry meant to me. People do not understand the electricity, the generosity, and the wide, wide body of the poetry community. I never knew I could be so embraced by a tribe—solitary, scribbling at my window with a notebook, perpetually individual in my passion: this was my image of poetry. But what a broken, small image to hold when so many poets in so many beautiful bodies are out in the dirt of the world, finding and lifting each other up—encouraging and fighting and prophesying and singing.
Our community is our secret weapon against the brokenness of the world, the weight of its systems of hopelessness and wars and daily indignities and violence. I am so thankful to be a part of it, so stronger as a person because of it, and I hope more young people get to find it sooner than I did.
As soon as I find a word to describe the ‘good poem’ (i.e. ‘thick’, ‘embracing’, ‘delightful’, ‘machine’), a great poem of opposite quality peeks out from behind my ear and says—like Ben from Lost—“What about me?”
Saying that—poetry, for me, has to be of a body. There’s no room anymore for poetry that doesn’t engage our bodies, that doesn’t put bees in our mouths, or paint honey across our lower backs, sticking us to our chairs. So much of the world today is pulling us out of our bodies: our phones, our politics, our jobs. Language, in service to the reality of human experience, can and should be an attack on the ghost-making nature of our technically advanced world. Even as we read the poems on our phones.
And poetry ought to be good—opposed to the bad. More and more frequently I worry about bad poetry and its power in the world today. We have poems being read on political stages to rile up hate and division and fear. A poem doesn’t get to be above the fray of our battles—amorality is a myth of the privileged. The poem is either doing good or doing bad and I’m always considering which.
Frontier is hungry. The magazine is eager to put poets onto the stage, to be a platform for the new and the under-represented. Folks come to read Frontier every week because the poetry is consistently diverse and distinctly crafted and of a kind they won’t always find in a university library.
Being a digital platform also allows us a distinct advantage of immediacy and urgency—we get to be on the very edge of where poetry currently lives and breathes. We can find a poem and publish it that same day if need be, and our readers expect each week to read a piece that pushes them to think and experience poetry in new ways, to be a part of the larger community conversation on language happening right now. Our audience is likely asking themselves: Who are the new poets to watch? What are poets currently trying out with form and visuality? How are poets from around the world and communities-not-my-own engaging with the English language?
When poets send us their work, they are looking for support as emerging writers. We’re always on the lookout to bring new blood into the community—our last two contests had high schoolers make the finalist lists. We have a high school poet as one of our readers. The talent for language stretches wide across age, race, birth-nation, and identity. Frontier endeavors with a sincerely generous spirit to find and support the talent that may often be overlooked.
Not yet—more likely there are regrets in what we haven’t published. One particular ache of an editor is knowing the whole picture. Our submitters don’t get to see the whole picture—only the acceptance or the rejection—and everything is inevitably very personal.
The fact is that choices on what we publish often have to be made in the context of what we’ve scheduled already, what we’re planning on publishing, what we’ve already published. Some poets, though as talented and as plugged into our cultural moment as any other, receive rejections simply because a similar poem or voice got there first. I sincerely hope that we communicate well with our submitters that a rejection, in the end, can be an encouragement, but even typing that sentence out was tough.
I can imagine a time, though, when I look back and regret a piece that I didn’t realize was problematic. Similarly, there has been a consistent regret when I look back at the media and content I enjoyed growing up and in my youth. So much of what I consumed was invisibly doing harm to me and the larger culture—I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I’m totally confident that I know all the ways in which prejudice and cynicism sneak into art.
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.