There are a lot of good reasons to love editing a literary magazine: for one, you feel like you’re doing something for writers and readers by providing an outlet for talent and curating content for the public. That is certainly true about Poetry South, the magazine I am fortunate enough to edit with a small staff of students and alumni of our low-residency MFA program. And it is true of Ponder Review, the multi-genre magazine our program started to reflect the kinds of writing that we practice in our classes. But my reason for loving my role as editor of Poetry South is more selfish.
As editor, I have the enviable (and unenviable) job as final arbiter of whose poems are in and whose are out of the magazine. I read every submission, but I also have a staff who reads and votes, and often we disagree — not vehemently, but our votes aren’t all identical. Naturally, there are practical considerations of length and our page format that sometimes dictate whether a poem will fit our pages or whether we have room for another poem. There’s a balancing act to try to put together the best issue that we can from the submissions we receive, and I know there have been times when we’ve sent back very good poems.
Sometimes a reader has read too many poems when she or he gets to a poem that may be quite good, but because of everything that came before, her or his vision is clouded. That’s where the process helps. We try to have at least 2 and often 3 pairs of eyes on every poem. It’s not a democracy, though. Ultimately, a decision has to be made, and that’s what I love — not the power of making the decision, but the responsibility.
An assistant editor may have loved a poem that I passed over on an initial read. Maybe two other readers liked it, and I didn’t. This challenges me to reread and rethink the decision. Or the opposite may occur, where I loved a poem (or liked it — maybe in a generous moment) and it got voted down by one or two other readers. In either case, I end up reading the poem two or three times, and I have to justify my final decision.
Yes, I change my mind, swayed both for and against poems that I voted for or against in my initial read. Often you notice things the second time around that you didn’t notice initially — reading for a magazine is an imperfect art. I learn as much when my mind isn’t changed as when it is.
To make these decisions is to constantly reevaluate and challenge myself about what I think about poetry. Yes, sometimes a theme or a voice develops for an issue and that’s why you make the decisions you do, but often what you learn is more about what you value in a poem. I’ve learned, for instance, that I like a poem with a good narrative, but that I want a poem with more than a narrative: it has to have rich sounds and be said in such a way that I can’t imagine another way to say it. I like a poem that challenges my sense of form and structure, but I want that poem to also have something to say. And I’ve learned that I can’t second guess what I like because just when I do, a poem will come along that challenges all of those preconceptions and still manages to amaze.
I love editing a literary magazine because I get to read so much poetry — not just the poetry that we decide to publish, but also those poems we decide to send back. And I learn from it all. Perhaps more than anything, I learn just how many different poets are out there, and how many different kinds of poetry they write, and how much passion each brings to their art. And I can’t help hoping they’ll all get published. If our little magazine isn’t the right fit for them this time, I suspect they’ll find the right place at the right time soon enough.
But for those we do publish, when I start compiling contributors notes and find out who the poets are — we tend to read fairly blind — I love seeing that we publish some poets with multiple books and many magazine publications to their name, and that we also publish poets for their first or second time. It’s nice to know we have a good mix of experience, age, background, etc., and that it all comes together between two covers to form a cohesive whole. Within those pages, we introduce these disparate voices to one another, and we hope we create something new and valuable in the process.