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Journal, Day One

By Jeff Shotts

Poetry is one of the ways the daily world is wonderfully made strange, and it’s perhaps all one can ask of art—to push us into wonder, outside or perhaps more deeply into ourselves. Many poets seem to write of the pleasures of familiarity, and write poems that are meant to ring in our ears as works that we feel vaguely assured by or that we’ve already heard before. I know there are readers who want this from poetry. But it’s not at all why I am moved to view paintings, or listen to music, or watch a film, or go to a play, or read a book of any genre. Or select a manuscript of poetry for publication.

I’m reminded of one of the truest statements in contemporary writing: “I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of the lifetime.” This is from the introduction to the “Short Talks” section of Plainwater by Anne Carson. It is not at all that the world is boring, because the world is not boring. It’s that so much of everything, at least in American culture, seems to be trying to be boring. Because if something—a slogan, a pop song, a creed, an image, and so on—can just be repeated enough times, or so the argument goes, it will get through and we will want that thing enough that we won’t know what else to want. And the end of desire is the birthplace of boredom.

Recently married, my partner Jen and I, for our honeymoon, spent the month of January in India, and ever since, we’ve been trying to make sense of ourselves, why we went there, and what we experienced. I haven’t again worn the shoes I wore that month, as they are still covered with remnants of desert sand, cow dung, and ash from the funerary pyres at the banks of the Ganges. No, the world is not boring. Perhaps we went there for the same reason we got married: to add something to ourselves that is knowingly and powerfully not ourselves. And to love that something.

Poetry—the best poetry—rings truest when it makes us, at least momentarily, strangers to ourselves. Which is why the best poetry often frightens us, puts us off, at first. This reminds me of my initial reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, whose sonic strategies felt claustrophobic, until I came to admire how the spiritual struggle of many of Hopkins’s poems is enacted by that constriction. Or, to use a more contemporary example: upon first encountering Frank Bidart’s chilling monologue in the voice of a sexually disturbed predator, “Herbert White,” I was necessarily repelled, until the originality and theatricality of such a mode dawned on me. Perhaps with similar initial bewilderment we confront the mythic enormity of William Blake, or the word play of Gertrude Stein, or the associative movement of Sylvia Plath—or more recently, the Oulipo strategies of Harryette Mullen, the syntactical inventiveness of Carl Phillips, or the vernacular interplay of C.D. Wright.

It is with the hope of being rattled in some way that I turn the pages of poetry submissions. Over this week, I hope to describe some of the things that rattle me about poetry and about poetry editing and publishing. I hope too that some of these entries will help demystify the submissions and editing process, which is subjective and which at times can feel adversarial to writers.

I have worked at Graywolf Press for 10 years, and the one thing that excites me, repels me, and challenges me about the role of the poetry editor is that it can’t be done well enough: you can’t read enough submissions, you can’t attend enough readings, you can’t pore through enough literary magazines or visit enough online publications, you can’t write kind enough rejection letters, you can’t raise enough funds, you can’t publish and promote enough books, you can’t organize enough readings and events, you can’t sell enough copies. It can’t be done well enough. Like the role of the writer. It is the task of a lifetime.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, May 8th, 2006 by Jeff Shotts.