The Café Review
Poetry as Process and Product
— Steve Luttrell
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.
We live in a time fertile with new poetic voices and abundant with new outlets for poetry. Poet Robert Duncan once said, “I find it healthy that there are just lots of different kinds of poetry. Most of the time, having heard something once I won’t want to hear it twice.” As publishers of small–press poetry, we know exactly what he means. Given the vast variety, we must have criteria by which we make our selections and recognize that every editor brings to the process some sort of subjective bias. To deny this fact is to be untruthful.
I have always thought of the poets and artists included in The Café Review as an extended family of creative people, correspondents to the publication itself. With that in mind, when sending out work, a poet should select publications that print poems similar in tone and style to those he or she writes. My own bias favors a poetry of delight, of exuberance and play; a poetry that celebrates the sheer joy of language and its possibilities. The true pleasure of making a poem (even a dark one) should be conveyed in the energy of the poem. The experience of the poem is delight.
In addition to solid criteria, a publisher should have an agenda, a way to promote poetry that gives the publication a distinct personality and a unique approach. Poet Charles Olson characterized the poem as a “high–energy construct.” With that in mind, I tend to regard each issue of our publication as a gathering of such constructs and believe the combination of these energies defines the impact of the issue. I feel this principle gives The Café Review an organic base to its process and product.
Small–press poetry has its roots in offering an alternative to establishment publishing. Historically, editorial authority has been with the academy, which has presided over a limited body of work, slow to admit anything new or fresh, anything risky in subject or speech. Moving beyond small presses, inexpensive self–publishing and the Internet have markedly altered the landscape of contemporary poetry. They have created a new freedom to produce and distribute, bypassing the steps of submission and acceptance or rejection. Hence, editorial judgment has been democratized, passing from the elite establishment to the individual. In this atmosphere of freedom and dissemination of the new, it is important that a small–press publication know itself and be able to adhere to its determined criteria, carry out its particular mission and yet avoid pedantic, academy–like discrimination.
Poet Robert Creeley once counseled that the only reason to write poetry is because you have to. Perhaps we could say the same about publishing poetry. We select the poems and assemble each issue out of a love of poetry, grounded perhaps in a certain idea of what poetry is and why we need it. In order to develop our criteria and define our agenda on the practical level, we need to mine the deeper, organic level of poetry itself, though a slippery task it may be.
The trick, it seems, is to get a handle on the poetic process and its apparent place in our collective consciousness, its value as such, and its ability to mirror our time. I am most drawn to poems that contain the universal in the particular, such as Li–Young Lee’s poem Fire Enthroned, published in our Spring 2003 issue:
The dove’s voice
is a sodden bed of leaves.
My mother’s voice
an unheated room in autumn.
Or is that my voice, after all,
at the window? Or has my dead brother’s
shirt collar begun to yellow?
A dove’s peeled breast
could barely feed a soul. The hunger it tolls
is my own inheritance.
Or have I dreamed too long
under my mother’s pear trees?
Have I traded my mother’s tablecloth
for a shadow
of the falling petals,
my voice for the voice
of the conquering dew,
my portion of time
for a seat somewhere between
and the speaking fire
alive inside each thing
woven of dust and yearning?
The dove’s tremors
are lapsed echoes
of that native voice, the fire enthroned.
The dove’s flying away casts a shadow.
Now a bridge, now a gate, now my hands
parting the curtain to find the rest of the day.
In this poem, the poet seems to draw from his personal experience and create a much larger set of images for the narrative. The poem issues from his consciousness and is, literally, expressed. It takes its power from the very center of his being while referencing the universal.
In his book Day Book of a Virtual Poet, Creeley describes this dynamic by saying, “Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between the individual consciousness and the world.” In other words, a poem reflects back the poet’s mind, just as the tremors of Lee’s dove echo his voice and cast a shadow of their own.
The function of poetry, at least in part, should be to explore the possibilities of language, to be engaged with language in a special way, a way that pushes the limits. Language as a flow seems to surge at times and become relatively flat at others. Language is a system–less system. “We’re surrounded by language,” Duncan says. “We take what of it we can use.” A poet finds his or her voice continually. Voice is a very fluid thing. It is a dynamic function. As any art form requires experimentation, it is necessary to “try on” many voices in order to reach the one that most reflects one’s ground of consciousness.
For a person aspiring to write true poetry, it is crucial to read as much of the poetry of others as possible. One should search out the poetry of other times, other cultures. One should explore the seeming boundaries of speech and find the subtleties of feeling in forgotten forms. In this way, as an architect of language, a poet develops personal criteria and sets about following an authentic agenda.