Simpatico Poets Press

The Active Voice
Daniel Kerwick

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.

In the aftermath of what we, in New Orleans, refer to as “The Thing” (Hurricane Katrina) the notion of “being there” took on a new focus. Surreal to be sure, an altered landscape emerged that we saw with cautious eyes, an etched clarity, and perhaps somewhat optimistically simply because we had survived. But, too, it haunted us with a lingering fear that the intangible uniqueness of our city might be lost forever.

One of the positive things to come out of the disaster was that local artists, especially poets, stepped up to the plate to put these fears to rest. It was out of the many poetry readings during that time that Simpatico Poets Press was formed. Born out of necessity not to go crazy in our fragile, altered world Simpatico evolved from raw pamphlets and chapbooks passed among friends to now, three years later, what is known in the trade as “book art” publications that were even recently displayed in a gallery show of such work.

To date, Simpatico Press has published more than 20 titles by New Orleans poets who are active on the local scene. The books are all handmade and hand stitched at Simpatico Studio, with press runs of 50 or 100 copies. We enlist local artists to contribute images and interns from local schools have even helped out. The books are sold at readings, book fairs, and a couple of local bookstores. When I travel, I always bring along a few copies of my own work to trade with other poets.

The poets that we’ve published have produced true documents of the time and voice of our region. Listen to the range of their voices:

     To begin a tale that decides its own meander…
     Megan Burns

     We pick the ripest harbingers of light . . .
     Gina Ferrara

     One should have gentle addictions
                        a sense of the maladjusted . . .
     Thaddeus Conti

These were opening lines that made me want to hear more, dive deeper into the poems, swim in their language. The absence of the declarative “I” dotting the poems like billboards of self allow the reader to use his or her imagination, to participate in its movement. Meander where? What harbingers of light? Why a sense of the maladjusted?

A friend of mine, when using “I” in a poem, has a rule that it can’t appear until the eighth line. But, of course, rules are made to be broken. As an editor, I usually pass on “poems as diary,” poems that lack persona or an inherent love for the musicality of language. “Opinion poems,” as I call them, are better off buried in essays or bar chatter. I can tell you why the New Orleans Saints lost last Sunday or how our government dropped the ball after Katrina. But in a poem?  Didactic political statements usually kill a poem that, in itself, is political.

An example of avoiding this is seen in New Orleans poet Megan Burns’ poem At 30. Burns is able to move from abstractions like the vagaries of memory and desire into the use of allegory in order to illustrate her concerns:

                                        . . . a slumbering city
     slips beneath the water but still no metaphor
                       that I could hand you
                       that would help me
                                tell you
                                   feels . . .

In her poem, fact and imagery fit into a dream landscape as context without a linear narrative other than “the poem,” which ends with an island of ferocious outcomes. 

After hearing Burns read, I wanted to see more of her work and experience it on the page. What I look for in poems is a cadence that moves and surprises me, a return to the form of the poem that once again departs, pulls me into a landscape that is as unfamiliar as it is familiar. I look for the sense that the poet’s work is part of a whole without being redundant, that, if one shed the poems’ titles, we’d have a decent, serial work.

Like New Orleans musicians, who wear many hats and play music of numerous genres and styles, a poet who is not afraid to take risks, play with different forms all in the same piece, will sometimes find far more interesting results than adhering to shopworn formulas.

Born out of local readings, Simpatico Poets Press seeks to capture raw energy on the page. But the design of a proposed book can inform the choices an editor makes about a particular poem. The rejection of a poem does not always mean that the poem is not successful, or that there is not something valuable in the effort. In most cases, it is apparent that a writer is a skilled poet, who is not only busy sharing his or her work with others but is interested in hearing other voices. Poems are rejected for many reasons, some of which are based on craft, others based on how they fit into a particular book.

A question I like to ask young poets is, “Who are you reading lately?” Some stammer and say something like, “I only like Bukowski.” Nothing against Charles Bukowski, but my red flag goes up if they read only one poet, and that’s when I suggest they take a trip to a bookstore or library.

A journal or book can be a good chronicle of the times and all the voices embraced that precede it. Besides the meditative benefits, and the need to say something, one of the great benefits of poetry is people simply gathering and sharing. Poems are meant to be read aloud; books facilitate that act and are a great talisman to take home, to pull out now and again to howl with.

Here, I like to share a poem by New Orleans poet Thaddeus Conti:

     The Sexual Prowess of a Meteorologist as Held over
     from the Age of Aquarius

     one should have gentle addictions
     a sense of the maladjusted

     so as when those around them step out of the norm
     they can reign them in as well as earn a sense of shame

                                       sometimes it is so easy
                                       to be under the scalpel

     in a world of sores      

     if I were a musician    I would suspend theory

     and call on
     the absence     of

     a certain knowledge

     to write         our song

When reading this off the page, I can hear Conti’s voice and am pulled into a mysteriously shared space where all of us are under the scalpel. With his use of humor and pathos, there is movement in this poem away from the facts and anguish over the predicament, here, in New Orleans that reveals Conti’s quirky, singular voice honed at gatherings where the business of poetry is in its rightful place.