What the Poetry Editor looks for
'Phase Transition’ - Being the Poetry Editor of Brand
Once, a writer I know, on hearing that I’d had three poems accepted by a magazine said, ‘One “yes” and the soul is mended’. He was right. Each acceptance makes the outlines we draw to create the shape of ourselves as writers, bolder, clearer. The acknowledgements that preface any poetry collection mark not only thanks, but also vital moments of restoration. Then, just as ‘phase transition’ occurs when a certain number of chaotic electrons create an atom, a collection emerges when a healthy amount of poems have been sanctioned by a range of editors.
Being in the position to say ‘yes’ is immensely humbling and continues to give me nothing short of joy. It relies on the serendipity of what arrives among the twice yearly open submissions, as well as scouting out new poets through readings, anthologies and international poetry journals. I look for a strong voice that eschews sentimentality, voices haunted by the ghost of narrative, anti-narrative voices that have lost their avant-garde ego, and poems that negotiate feelings as ideas and ideas as feelings. I like poems that do new things with sexuality, race and gender; that carry on conversations, however haphazardly or cantankerously, with poets of the past as well as making moves on a future that we thought was changed for good by Modernism. I engage most with work that rubs shoulders with visual culture as much as with other literary forms. A ready poem can only have one beginning, one ending. It has the nerve to make you believe in it and can transform how you approach thinking and living.
I can work for weeks on a poem to give it legs, while occasionally one flies in on its own wings – it’s that energy and self-sufficiency I’m after. There’s generosity and kindness in a good poem that has the currency and vibrancy to say something about our ‘now’. One of the insights I’ve gained as an editor, is viewing my own poetry with my ‘Brand’ chapeau on and asking, ‘So, would this be good enough for “Brand”? Has it been burnished or tarnished by the 21st century? Does it glow or scoff? Can it alarm? Rescue from alarm?’
I couldn’t do this without the support and inspiration of my editorial assistants and the vision of the editor-in-chief, Nina Rapi. Writing is a solitary procedure. Editing requires a crowd.
Cherry Smyth’s latest collection is ‘One Wanted Thing’, Lagan Press, 2006. See www.cherrysmyth.com
This piece appears in the November 2009 Issue of ‘Soundings’ Magazine