Sarah Ghazal Ali of West Branch Recommends...

When working through the submission queue, I often notice patterns across work submitted on the same day or in the same time frame. These are packets of poems submitted by writers from all over the country, writers of diverse and wide-ranging backgrounds, and yet, obsessions and anxieties tend to overlap. In the summer of 2022—just after Roe v. Wade was overturned—I read countless poems circling motherhood, abortion, and the site of the body. I saw numerous iterations of wombs, wounds, and sterile hospital rooms. As the climate crisis unfolds around us, poems in the West Branch queue continue to probe its past, present, and future. The role of the artist in the Anthropocene seems to be on the forefront of everyone’s mind, and as a result, I’ve come to expect imagery of oil rigs and extinct animals. Ahead of the solar eclipse that occurred this past April, I was already trying to guess what sort of constellating imagery I would soon find across submissions. The bending path of totality? A glowing corona?

This isn’t to say that these subjects have become mundane or uninteresting—not in the slightest. Their prevalence in contemporary poetry is an indicator of their significance, a mark of the difficult moment we live in, or of our enduring reverence for omens and natural phenomena. But the question that arises for me as an editor is one of attention: How are poets directing the reader’s gaze, carving novelty or surprise from something many people are writing about or toward? Even if thirty submissions in a row have nothing in common, the fact of the matter is still that your poem has to hold the reader’s interest against twenty-nine others. Write into what compels you, but reach behind your initial thought, behind the initial impulse toward a certain image or phrase. Feel around for the second or third image instead. That’s where surprise emerges from. That’s where the truth is. As an editor, I’m most drawn to strangeness, to a turn of phrase that defamiliarizes something I thought I intimately knew. If you can surprise yourself, you’ll certainly surprise me, and that sense of peculiarity will surely help your poem sing true, clear, and striking.

Sarah Ghazal Ali, poetry editor, West Branch

Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan