Lucye & Serenity: Bookstore out of business,
Murfreesboro, NC—Covid Summer, 2020
Photography by Leeta Harding
From the poetry editor’s desk—
In my submission guidelines, I point out certain types of poems that I tend to avoid. Chief among these is the overtly political or religious poem, which ultimately fails, and not because I don’t agree with the position. It’s just that, often, the statements become so boilerplate and cliché as to avoid being intimate and true. They are filled with abstractions, which to me, carry little poetic weight. In poetry, I don’t want to read what society is supposed to believe, I want the suggestion of an individual’s inner life awash in chaos. I want the detailed example, the gesture, the tone, not the policy or policy reform. I want an author to make me empathize, not to read back the news. It’s a lot of tell and not so much show.
I’m from Missouri, as the slogan goes. When I see surface political statement in a poem, as when I see moments of holy veneration, I wonder who the hell the poem thinks it’s trying to convince. I don’t remember anything absolute in Seamus Heaney’s poetry. He walked between the factions. He was a human being. His poems are human.
That’s the most important thing one can do to subvert political oppression. Be human. Remind them. Remind me of my humanity. I believe what Adrienne Rich said about poetry, that every poem written in the twentieth century, along with anything we do, is a political act. And I believe what Audre Lorde wrote, that people who live by rivers dream they are immortal. Sounds like poetry, and yet it still might contain the political.
Our historical context is enough and the very act of writing is political, perhaps because it suggests independent, critical thought, rather than complicity to the majority or to the channels of power or to the corrupt face of tradition.
I am an editor, a poor one probably, so please bury your feelings when you approach. That’s a terrible thing to want isn’t it? But I enjoy the sublimation of political discourse. Those Winter Sundays is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a political poem only to the starchiest of critics. The energy is welling up in that one. I have biases. I don’t think pigmentation is one of those, but implicit bias tells me it probably is on some level. I cannot tell which race any writer is when I first read a poem. I certainly don’t need to. I value that anonymity, just as I hope editors value it when they read my work. The words on the page should be enough.
You may still question my biases, especially if I have overlooked your poems in the past. I understand. But it’s nothing personal. The phrase I utter most to the air upon receiving a rejection myself is that they (the editors) don’t know shit. But this is not why I would recommend sending your political poems elsewhere. And guess what, even if they are overtly political, I am still going to read them, and it just might surprise me. You might have the next Second Coming by Yeats. I’m just saying the likelihood is low. It’s merely a suggestion. However, there are plenty of opportunities for any poem to carry a political message without using a bullhorn, even a poem about a bullhorn. Ode to a Bullhorn. That sounds promising, yes? These are the poems I enjoy. The poems that surprise me. The poems that move me. The poems in which I can feel the thermodynamics working deep, near the core.
So bury it, but bury it beautifully, so that I can tease them out with my indelicate mind. Tell all the truth Dickinson wrote, but tell it slant. Don’t worry. You don’t need to state the obvious. The political context already surrounds it. It is ubiquitous.
I want to sit down in a room we’ve never been before and tell you this story, tell it without / embellishment or satisfaction, without trying to see a moral dangling at the end.—Justin Lacour from “Story”
Not sure if it’s the jack pines or what— / but something quickens— / old haunts retain their power. Old habits…–Mary Ann Samyn from “At the Entrance to It”
if they wanted to reach the country’s / edge, they’d have to pay again, and if not, / be left by the side of some unpaved road–Esteban Rodríguez from “Smuggle”
Every time they break the pond / Or their spines leave spines in the grass.–Brian Johnson from “Summer Almanac”
Healing is trying, is working, is need. I tried to find my / way back but muscle memory atrophies—I need to be–Kim Stoll from “Brauche”
holding / / barbed wire strands apart for his date / to slip through into a cornfield, / to walk between dark rows,–Les Bares from “Growing Pains”