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Journal, Day Two
We are all biased, all prejudiced, whether we admit it or not. I often think about this. I am a man of dark thoughts. I have long given up trying to change that. I admit here that up until about three weeks ago, I was prejudiced against poems written by people who have been incarcerated. I know this is silly because many fine minds have been locked away, sometimes specifically because of their fine minds. That said, early in my tenure at NER, I read several submissions from men who were incarcerated. The poems were terrible. I somehow added the two together in my head so that incarcerated equaled bad poems.
This isn’t the only example I can give of my poetry prejudices. When I first started editing, I kept reading poems in various journals that held Opera and its machinations as the subject. I made a vow never to publish poems about Opera, spurred by a conversation I had with a poet friend of mine. But, of course, someone would come along to break my resolve. An unknown, to me at the time, poet named Jennifer Grotz, sent me a poem titled, “The Last Living Castrato.” It silenced me, as many good poems do. And it forced me to rescind my refusal to publish anything about Opera.
Likewise, a few years later, I kept reading poems about sports, specifically baseball and basketball. Again, I placed a moratorium on such poems. I felt as if every magazine I picked up had a “sports poem” in it. Again, an unknown, to me at the time, poet named Patrick Phillips submitted a poem that challenged my ideas on the situation. His poem, “To the Muse from Way Downtown,” was simply too good to pass up.
But I am getting away from the original premise of this entry. I held a prejudice not just against a type of poem, but also against the situation of a certain class of poets. I had convinced myself that if incarcerated one simply couldn’t write a good poem. How I came to this conclusion is not entirely clear to me, even now after having written the first paragraph of this entry. But what I can say is someone came along to prove me wrong, to show me my base prejudice, to make me step back and reevaluate.
Not long ago, I received some poems from a gentleman named Malcolm Alexander King. As is my usual custom, I don’t read cover letters unless one or more of the poems in the batch interest me. In this case, that policy was a good one. Had I read the cover letter first, I may have let my prejudice have the better of me. Not only that, but the cover letter was written in pencil. I am sure I would have thought that unprofessional. Anyway, here I had this beautiful poem playing with the idea of light, the physics of light and the speed of light, all as extended metaphor for experience captured in a work of Art. My socks had been knocked off. I was silenced. And when I read the cover letter (written in pencil because Mr. King does not always have access to a computer or typewriter), what I felt was not only joy but also shame. We are all human. We are all biased, prejudiced. Unavoidable, I think, at times.
Malcolm Alexander King is a name I will never forget. Something tells me if he weren’t incarcerated, I would seek him out as a friend (much the way I befriended Grotz and Phillips after finding their poems). Sometimes the stars align in just the right way to show you how stupid you really are. I am glad that sometimes when that happens to me, I actually recognize it. In many ways, this is my first step toward befriending King. And sometime, in the near future, despite his incarceration, I will have to write to him and explain why I am grateful to him, both for his poem and for the very fact of him.