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Journal, Day Four

By Jeff Shotts

A Case for Disappearance

Discussions about poetry and editing like this one are dangerous: they always remind me that I can’t do this job well enough, I can’t read and culturally or aesthetically digest everything, I can’t disappear altogether as I think a good editor should, both from the texts I edit and from the list I shape.

I’m often asked about the idea of editors as curators, shapers of taste in some way. The problem of being an editor or curator is that it tricks you into thinking your opinion, your judgment, aesthetic or otherwise, is important—when it seems to me that editors are not curators in the sense that they somehow direct or envision or prognosticate or define the art (of poetry, in this case). To think so seems to me an unfortunate and misdirected arrogance that results in the exertion of selfhood, rather than the nurturing of art and artists. When looking at poetry in all its fragmented manifestations, it is clear to me that should every poetry editor suddenly decide to publish only the most wildly experimental or avant garde poetry, I promise you that the formalists and plain-style practitioners would still be, if even underground, penning their sestinas and sonnets and narratives and finding ways to disseminate them.

This is to say, then, that I don’t believe that editors shape and direct poetry: poets do. To believe anything else is to limit unfairly the responsibility and aesthetic decision-making best made by the practitioners of the art themselves. If we suggest or encourage or even demand that writers begin writing to fit aesthetics handed down by publishers and editors, then published writing of any creative or authoritative merit would become purposefully and culturally defunct. It is, then, the more difficult role of the editor to read and recognize the breadth of the art as a whole, adapt and shape a list based on that recognition and the history of the publishing house, and then to disappear—none of which admittedly can ever be accomplished, none of which can ever be done entirely, but all of which should be among the tasks of any editor willing to put poets and poetry above and ahead of himself. So if I think of editing as curating at all, it is this attempt for supporting writers, rather than an attempt to shape and define the art itself.

When considering the 2,000-2,500 poetry submissions that Graywolf receives each year, this means I spend an overwhelming amount of time with work that we never publish, that may never be published, and that may not deserve to be published. It’s less that editors these days—under this number of submissions—are curators or taste-makers, perhaps; it’s more that editors are, to use another metaphor, doorkeepers, as aware (or maybe more aware) of what they want to keep out of the world as much as what they want to allow in. Ask an editor what they look for in poetry submissions, and they are likely to avoid the question by giving you a long list, rather, of what they don’t want—sentimental poems, overtly personal or confessional poetry, inspirational religious verse, and so on. I am reminded of Randall Jarrell’s lines from his poem “Next Day”: “Wisdom, said William James, / Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise / If that is wisdom.”

Not only is it the editor’s job to disappear, but also the editor’s job to overlook writing that does not embrace complex and artful modes of expression—to make it disappear. Again, this kind of disappearance is impossible, and yet I find it an ideal to strive for, even if, especially if, it means the editor must also disappear by his own process.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, May 11th, 2006 by Jeff Shotts.