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Abdul Ali
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Publishing poems is a stressful undertaking. All those weeks bleeding into months of waiting. And let's not talk about the stakes in getting published--the validation, the fleeting social media fame, the entries on the CV, or if you're an academic the tenure review folder. And yet, as a reader, nothing gives me more pleasure than to discover a new voice or to read a new poem by a favorite poet. I often lose whole days just leafing through the pages (or screen) of a literary journal. I've decided to try to create this series to bring attention to literary journals (and those who labor behind the scenes to keep them running) in hopes that these conversations can be useful to poets who are trying to figure out how to publish poetry. I caught up with E. Ethelbert Miller and Jody Bolz, executive editors of the literary journal Poet Lore, to share insights about their journal and to demystify the anxiety-producing prospect of trying to publish in a journal that receives thousands of submissions per year. Both of you are seasoned poets and long-time readers of literary journals. What would you say sets Poet Lore apart from other journals? Ethelbert: I think our journal is one the general public can enjoy. I feel it’s a publication that presents a “gift bag” for everyone. I also see Poet Lore upholding American literary traditions as well as venturing into the unknown and discovering new voices. Every magazine is unique because each reflects the vision of its editors. My views about what a literary journal can do were shaped by my working relationship with the writer and publisher Ahmos Zu-Bolton back in the 1970s. I helped him publish Hoo-Doo. At that time, it was the sister magazine to Callaloo and Obsidian. Ahmos placed special emphasis on design and format. A journal has to look good as well as read well. I like how Poet Lore looks and feels in my hands. When I read the list of contributors on the back cover page of an issue, I’m proud of the work I’m doing, the history I’m creating, the bringing to surface the blessings from poets. Jody: One thing that makes each issue of Poet Lore a fascinating read is the way the poems are arranged in relationship to one another: we place them in a narrative arc so that the poets are in conversation with one another from start to finish. Our Editors’ Page in the front of the journal invites readers to consider specific thematic threads that run through the selection of poems. We love the idea of presenting a chorus of voices in a wide range of tones, and the sound metaphor is no accident; at each month’s editorial meeting, we read the poems we’ve chosen for consideration aloud to one another. When we can’t hear any kind of music (and I’m not talking about conventional meter and rhyme here but cadences and echoes), we don’t take the poem. As editors and... Continue reading
Posted Dec 30, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I want to revisit my post from the top of the week. It is my wish that all of the poets out there working on that first (or next) book can take a breath and forget about outside expectations, to tap into that oyster of their imagination and yank out a pearl. This is what I will for all of my poet brothers and sisters (and those who may identify as neither or both). This is also what I will for myself. It's hard being an artist--the uncertainty of it all, exposing yourself to the public, trying to maintain good mental health is such a competitive field. Nevertheless, when you realize that you are a part of a global community of artists scratching to make their existence visible, it doesn't feel as lonely. I leave you with some words from poets that I respect who had the following to say when I asked them what would they tell their younger poet selves: My advice is especially to women, who get discouraged easily. If a journal rejects your poems but invites you to submit again, DO IT! The editor of a prominent journal told me that the men who get that message from him almost always resubmit right away. And women, not for months or maybe ever. Sarah Browning I think the young need to find their own way in the world. Wait, that's not true. Read, read, read everything you can get your hands on. Then try it yourself without anyone telling you how you should do it. Richard Krawiec Put your pen to the paper and let your music flow like the river you are! E.J. Antonio I think I’d tell my younger self to remember that stuff that kills in a reading is often unpublishable. Sometimes your emotion and presence helps it go over a lot better than it would on the page without you. So that’s where you can edit some. Can I make this poem a killer poem for the reader at home too? Remember that it always helps to know somebody. Hope for a little nepotism without the kinship part, whatever that's called. Make friends, find time to go to readings, AWPs. Randomly tweet and post people’s work to your Facebook. Now, I don’t think you should do this to get in good with people (though it may work)-I do it because I want to support & expose poets & I believe you reap what you sow. So…sow. Cedric Tillman I think it's important for a poet to locate and understand their moral compass. Hopefully with this comes an understanding of the role art plays in providing a person with direction and meaning in life. Looking back, I think I would encourage my younger self to read the Book of Psalms. E. Ethelbert Miller Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I can't say enough positive things about Taylor Johnson, a DC-based poet, who is making a splash in poetry communities off and on the page. Read Taylor's poem, "This is How you Enter a Poem," from the literary journal, Winter Tangerine. Sitting, at the east end of the bay, eating a salad after someone you love tells you to stay safe. And safe you are here, where everyone wants to look doesn’t want to look at you and you wonder why she tells you to stay safe. Then you see the man’s body enter the window of this poem. You’d like to start over. There is a black man in this poem, dead, as you might assume. And you are wondering how he got here and by whose hands. The poem could end here with you left to consider, perhaps, your own hands, their violence: how many bugs you’ve killed, whose face you really meant to hit when you broke the dry wall, the speed at which you counted out your mother’s pills. But the poem is saying something else, so you look to the body, closer, still idling in the window. You think: blood, You think guns, You think black, the police, You think more guns, some crying, You think feet, Louisiana, You think more blood, someone prostrate in the street. And the poem could live there, in the body, as some poems are wont to do. But you are ashamed, the poem couldn’t even say his name, the dead man in the window. You wonder if that’s really what the poem wants to say, the dead man’s name. Here, you are working to forget that the man is black. You are worried the poem will say what all poems say when the body is black: history, history, the future!, make it up, music, the future no more. And you are tired of those poems. If you think this poem isn’t for you, it is. The dead man could be your cousin, and not kin. So what does the poem do now? You want the poem to unrun the blood from his body, unkill the man whose name the poem won’t say. But this is just a poem. You are listening to Sam Cooke and he’s pleading, nearer to thee and it won’t be very long and you remember the ten guns that wanted you dead not too far from now, how you were almost a body in someone’s poem. Has this poem brought you far enough away from the bay, your salad, and your lover on the phone asking for your safety? In the poem the man is dead, dying again. And what have you done? This morning you walked along the highway eating a peach as if no one you loved has ever died. And they haven’t: the moths follow you, they wait for you against your screen door and dance as the wind passes through the trees, and the trees too are those you’ve loved and... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
It's not very often that an essay published in a literary journal stops me in my tracks. The December issue of POETRY features an essay, "A Politics of Mere Being," from the esteemed poet and critic Carl Phillips. Check it out. I hope it will challenge, if not cause you to rethink, your allegiance to identity politics that are mostly external and reader-response based. A Politics of Mere Being by Carl Phillips [An excerpt] When my first book of poems came out in 1992, I learned what it could mean to be seen as a political poet for no other reason than because of who or what one is. Rachel Hadas, who selected the book for publication, wrote a wonderful and uncannily accurate introduction, from which the publisher excerpted the following for the back cover: Internal evidence would seem to indicate that [this] is a poet of color who is erotically drawn to other men. The reductiveness of such terms is one lesson of In the Blood, with its    ...    constant dissolving of one world into another. I say uncannily accurate because I had yet to acknowledge to myself, let alone others, my being gay; about the color part, I’d been pretty aware, of course, all my life. Sexuality would end up being the primary lens through which my early work got read; and given how relatively new it still was to speak of queerness openly, and given the relative newness — and unknown-ness — of HIV and AIDS, the poems were seen as particularly relevant: political, let’s say. As for color — blackness — there are only two poems in the book that speak to this issue specifically (or as others have put it, there are only two “black poems” in the book). The first, “Passing,” is a kind of resistance to being told that black experience has to come down to a single experience: The Famous Black Poet is speaking of the dark river in the mind that runs thick with the heroes of color, Jackie R., Bessie, Billie, Mr. Paige, anyone who knew how to sing or when to run. I think of my grandmother, said to have dropped dead from the evil eye, of my lesbian aunt who saw cancer and a generally difficult future headed her way in the still water of her brother’s commode. I think of voodoo in the bottoms of soup-cans, and I want to tell the poet that the blues is not my name, that Alabama is something I cannot use in my business. Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
On those days when I am aimlessly scratching about in my notebook, music saves me. The lyrics of a song get the ceiling fan inside my head spinning. And before you know it, I’m inside a groove, propelled forward, in conversation with the artist. Here’s a playlist I just created for writing days. Let me know what you think. Please share what you listen to on those long nights when the deadline is dawn. Try these: “Redbone”: Awaken, My Love. Childish Gambino “Wrote My Way Out”: The Hamilton Mixtape. Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda & “Nightmare Bush’It Whirl”: Variations in Time: A Jazz Perspective. Amina & Amiri Baraka “Old Man River”: Aretha Franklin. Laughing on the Outside (Remastered) “Alright”: Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp a Butterfly “Melatonin”: A Tribe Called Quest. We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care): Solange. A Seat at the Table “Purple”: ThiDaniel. Purple “Love and Happiness”: Al Green. Greatest Hits “Flamenco Sketches”: Miles Davis. Kind of Blue “Ne Me Quitte Pas”: Nina Simone. The Best of Nina Simone “Thieves in the Temple”: Prince. The Very Best of Prince “Feel Like Making Love”: Roberta Flack. The Very Best of Roberta Flack “Higher Ground”:Stevie Wonder. Number 1’s “Baltimore”: Jazmine Sullivan. Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone Continue reading
Posted Dec 6, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
If I had it to do all over again, I would do it exactly as I have done it: jumping both feet in the deep end without a lifeboat. To my knowledge, I am the only poet from my cohort to publish straight after graduation (less than a year after graduating, I won the 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize.) In retrospect, I remember having mixed feelings about it all. The moment I received word, I received mostly notes of congratulations from my circle of friends, but there were a few notes that stand out. Maybe it was the tone. One poet wrote to let me know he was a finalist of the contest and is looking forward to reading my book (read: he wanted to see if I was deserving of being picked.) So, I began this journey feeling unsure of myself. Feeling lots of pressure. Why did they select my manuscript? Sure, I really enjoyed the validation that came with winning a prize, but there is an interior journey as a poet that one must take. Getting published doesn’t necessarily mean that one is growing, discovering oneself, and figuring out where you fit in in this world. The two are separate journeys. And it’s difficult to quiet the noise and get sure about what your aesthetic sensibilities are, what you want your work to do in the world, and by all costs, not get sucked in to wanting to become famous. With the ubiquity of social media, it’s almost impossible not to get sucked in to wanting to post “…and this happened” or you’ve just placed a poem in this “journal” or you’ve gotten accepted to this residency. It all becomes a drag after a while. You lament the good old days when you spoke unabashedly about something honest that made you feel vulnerable and you released it on the page then shared it with the public in person. // I’ll admit that I didn't (and still don't) fit the typical profile of any of the poets coming out of a graduate creative writing program. My kid was almost finished elementary school at the time. Graduation felt like the interruption of a blissful honeymoon. Suddenly, I needed to find a job. Poetry was a luxury at that point until it wasn’t. It became more necessary than air. I began to remember why I started writing. Why I cared about it. The space that it filled in my life. Those moments of political unrest, the restless nights, the sleepless nights. I wasn’t alone in feeling restless. The more I made my rounds connecting with readers, and audiences my world got bigger. My first few teaching appointments were teaching composition, so it didn’t really matter professionally that I had a collection of poems in the world. Talking about poems wasn’t what I was paid to do. And so, I learned to split myself into halves: one half thought a certain way at work and the other was ravenous for a jolt... Continue reading
Posted Dec 5, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Dec 4, 2016