Free Lunch: A Poetry Miscellany
Editing Poetry: Time Well Spent
— Ron Offen
Quick Note about this issue: This Editor’s Issue of The Café Review is different from our normal published reviews. We have asked 14 editors of poetry journals from across the United States two complex question: Why do some poems stand out from others? And what is he state of poetry in America today? Their answers will surprise you. We hope this issue will give poets a better sense of what editors look for in poems. You will get the inside scoop about why different journals accept different types of poems. For teachers, this issue will answer questions students have about the dos and don’ts in submitting poems as well as the perennial question of why poetry matter.
Editors are often pressed for time and make snap judgments on the submissions they receive. So, although I can sometimes tell if a poem is going to interest me from the first few lines, I try to hold off judgment until I have read the entire
poem — usually out loud if the poem really seems worthwhile. What does capture my immediate attention in the first few lines is the quality of the language rather than the subject matter.
Poetry for me is more about how than what. Consequently, I almost never accept work that I feel is prose arranged in lines to look like poetry, regardless of whatever attributes it might have.
What I want in a poem is figurative language, which, of course, includes sound. Other negatives for me are excessive modifiers and abstract nouns.
However, I am not convinced that an inferior opening line or lines can doom a poem. After all, if the rest of the poem holds up and is superior (admittedly an infrequent occurrence) the questionable lines can be revised. I often ask for revisions in an attempt to improve such lines. For me, re–writing is an important part of the process. In fact, more than 50 percent of the work that appears in Free Lunch: A Poetry Miscellany has gone through one or more requested revisions.
Of course asking for revisions — and perhaps offering suggestions for the improvement of a poem — consumes a great deal of my time. But, in my opinion, this is not only how an editor should be spending a significant amount of her or his time, it is also time well spent in the interest of poetry. Consequently, I have little respect for those editors who either wait for the “perfect” poem to come to their desks, or accept fairly good poems that contain some questionable qualities because they are too busy to communicate with the poets.
My position regarding revisions ties in with a vow I made when I envisioned publishing Free Lunch. As poet myself, I had long been vexed by form rejection slips that offered no clue as to why my work had been found unworthy of publication. So, I promised myself that I would comment (however briefly) on every poem submitted to me, and that if I ever felt I didn’t have time to do this, I would close down my publication.
Another thing that prejudices me against a submitted poem is when it is presented in the computer–generated form where the lines are centered on the page. Generally, I find no justification for lineation that relies on what seems to me an arbitrary and artificial template. Another negative for me is a weak title. In general, I find most poets to be lazy in choosing their titles; too often they settle for the obvious. A good poem can overcome this problem, but one titled “Grandma’s Garden,” for example, will rarely raise even a frisson of interest in me to read the poem that follows.
As I noted above, the language of a poem is more important for me than its subject. But some poems have subjects that I tend to reject almost out of hand. These subjects are: about writing poems, other poems, poets, poetry readings, etc.; works of literature or art; myths; pets; and religion, when cast in the context of a particular creed. (But if you were to scan the pages of Free Lunch, I must admit you would find poems with such subjects in its pages.)
As for types of poetry to which I am not sympathetic, these include prose–poems and language poetry. I usually find the former to be more prose than poetry, and they tend to be too long, too diffuse, and too detailed. The ideal prose–poem for me would be one of Robert Bly’s very short pieces in this genre. As for language poetry, I find it willfully and annoyingly obscure, as well as somewhat arrogant and elitist.
So, does poetry matters in the world today? I would say that it matters today, and it mattered yesterday, and will matter tomorrow. Rather than provide a lengthy argument to support this opinion, let me merely pose two questions and offer two answers. First, why is it that poets are among the first victims that tyrants and repressive regimes exile, imprison, or execute? Second, why are poems presented by poets or readers at such important events as presidential inaugurations, weddings, funerals, convocations, and various initiation rites?
The answer to the first is that poets, through the ages, have for the most part been outsiders and/or critics of the status quo. As such, their words can be deemed dangerous. Today, however, American poets for the most part — except in response to their country waging its most recent, unjustified wars — appear uninterested in assuming this role. Instead, they seem mostly concerned with themselves (their random thoughts, quotidian experiences, and childhood memories) and the subject of poetry itself.
The answer to the second question is that at such important times (but also in general), poetry satisfies a deep and perhaps innate need in people to hear (or read) their own thoughts and emotions expressed succinctly and artfully by others. Today there is a paucity of such moving or insightful poetry; but, then, this was also true of the past.
Finally, as an example of a poem that typifies some of the qualities I look for, I offer the following by California poet David Hernandez:
Without any warning, the disease
sweeps across the country
like a traveling circus.
People who were once blue,
who slouched from carrying
a bag of misery over one shoulder
are now clinically cheerful.
Symptoms include kind gestures,
a bouncy stride, a smile
bigger than a slice of cantaloupe.
You pray that you will be infected,
hope a happy germ invades your body
and multiplies, spreading merriment
to all your major organs
like door–to–door Christmas carolers
until the virus finally reaches your heart:
that red house at the end of the block
where your deepest wishes reside,
where a dog howls behind a gate
every time that sorrow
pulls his hearse up the driveway.