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Journal, Day Three
Though serendipity is rampant in the world at large, I am not convinced it is the standard way people enter a role such as Poetry Editor. But in my case, it was almost entirely serendipity. Many people have asked me, over the years, how I started editing poetry for a literary magazine. This is usually followed by questions about why I keep doing it. With regard to the first, I have little to offer about how someone becomes a poetry editor because my path is not likely a typical one.
When I was a graduate student, one of my good friends was a fiction writer named Jessica Dineen. Jessica and I had both worked at literary magazines in the past as interns. We both lamented the work we saw in various magazines, as many young writers do. We kept joking that when we graduated we were going to start our own magazine. We wanted a magazine to reflect what we believed to be the best writing out there. But we never started a magazine; starting a magazine is something many discuss but rarely do. After graduation, I began medical school and Jessica took an editorial position at Ploughshares. But we stayed in touch. We kept discussing literary things.
Two years after graduation, Jessica had already been promoted to Associate Editor at Ploughshares. I was getting ready to leave the lecture hall for the clinics and wards. Jessica applied for, and obtained, the position of Managing Editor at New England Review. When Jessica arrived in Middlebury, she discovered or, more likely, admitted to herself, that editing poetry was also part of her job. She called me up and asked if I would be willing to help out. With a shift in Editorial makeup, the magazine had halted production for a short time, and there was a very large backlog of works to be considered. It was 1995. She promised me I would just be helping out for a couple of months and that she would make it up to me.
For months I carried around submissions. I read them in my down time in the hospital. We had no editorial assistants then, no readers for poetry. I was the entire poetry staff. But I am a fast reader (thank God because I don’t think I would have made it through med school otherwise), and I cleared out the backlog within a few months. Jessica and Stephen Donadio, the magazine’s Editor, asked me to stay on to help out with poetry. I was given the title Poetry Consultant. A year or so later, I was promoted to Associate Editor for Poetry. And a short while later, I became NER’s first Poetry Editor. Jessica left the magazine, and Jodee Stanley arrived. Five or six years later, Jodee left to edit her own magazine, and an even newer Managing Editor arrived. Strangely, I am still there. I have been editing poetry at NER for over 10 years now. This fact is both exciting and frightening to me.
Editing poetry for a national literary journal is both a scary and rewarding thing. The scary part, which I try to forget, is that your job means rejecting thousands of poets. This doesn’t always sit well with those poets. Some actively dislike you for rejecting them, despite the fact rejections many times have more to do with the volume of work already accepted, other poems accepted that are similar, time of the year, special issues, etc. etc. We receive around 40,000 poems each year, but we only have space to publish 65 to 80 of them. But the rewarding part of the job is what has kept me going year after year.
Finding a striking poem is always exciting, but finding work from poets early in their career is even more exciting than I can explain here. Many of the poets whose first poems appeared in NER during my time with the magazine have gone on to publish books, some are even at the second and third book stage now. They have earned awards and critical recognition. I try to stand behind every one of them. So, every time I sit down to read submissions, I am always looking for poems to “knock my socks off.” And if that poem happens to be from an unpublished poet or one early in their career, I get even more excited. I look at the poem and wonder if this is the next Natasha Trethewey, the next Cate Marvin, the next Nick Flynn. The possibilities. The excitement. It is what has kept me editing for so long, why I continue to do so. In this, I know I am not alone. It is what keeps many editors doing what they do.