She started writing about Alexander Graham Bell, when communication from sea to sea by telephone was a new concept in this country. The piece continues through the history of how the government started putting telephone poles up across the towns and highways of America. Then, in the middle of the piece, she goes to the New York Times database and types in “telephone poles.” And almost every entry that comes up is about lynching. This is not where the essay was going. It takes a turn, and becomes a remarkable piece about racial violence just at the moment when we think we're in this great moment of connection. It is an amazing, chilling piece.
That was the moment we put our finger on what she was writing about. What then cascaded was this frank book about race, about whiteness and American culture. At some point, as the editor, it’s fascinating to get out of the way. These pieces started cascading together and making coherence out of what had previously been a kaleidoscope. No longer in that book is there the original spark, “The Pain Scale,” and it still hasn’t been put into a book.
That’s the nurturing patience. I hope some of what comes through to writers from our conversation is that it’s one thing for the publishing industry and editors to be impatient. There’s an economic drive around that. But writers can be the most impatient ones of all. That’s understandable, especially if you’re trying to get a teaching job, or we’re talking about poets or essayists who aren’t making life-changing advances, but are finding means to write through teaching. But if Eula had done that kind of kaleidoscopic book earlier on, I don’t think she’d be anywhere close to what she ended up accomplishing with Notes From No-Man's Land. Similarly, in Leslie Jamison’s case, there was a throughline all along, but a lot of her hundred-page sample didn’t make it into the final book. And as these individual pieces started to cohere, there was also a fascinating cascade. I keep coming back to that word.
You’re talking about that moment in the creative process when the work takes on its own momentum.
It’s the greatest moment. A good editor needs to recognize that moment as they’re editing on the page, but also when they’re in that nurturing conversation with their author. When do you shut up and get out of the way?
The line editing has to come at some point, but it’s that larger conversation where you as an editor gain the trust—and hopefully friendship—of your author.
I’ve yet to meet an author who sees a document filled with an editor’s comments and doesn’t think, at least for just a second, “Who the hell do you think you are?” [Laughs.]
Especially poets! [Laughs.] But if you’ve developed that trust and friendship, by the time you’re really doing the line-edit type stuff, you can spill ink as necessary. Editors can over-edit, of course, but developing that trust and friendship is so important.
How do you know when to shut up?
By listening to the author. When I send an editorial letter, it unnerves me when an author replies with, “You’re right. We should change that.” This happens very rarely, but when an author comes back and just says, “Yes, yes, yes,” it makes me concerned about their confidence in their voice.
My job is to get that author into a conversation about the work. I want that poet or essayist to draw a line for me, to say, “Yes, I’ll take this suggestion, but not this one—I don’t sound like myself anymore.” I’m willing to look a little stupid, or maybe a little pushy in some cases, but I love it when an author pushes back. That’s when I feel that the author is ready, confident in the work and in her own style and voice. That can be true for an author’s tenth book, but more often for the earlier books in a career.
An author needs to learn how to be an author.
Yes. And as an editor, you want your author to be able to present what their voice is. So I listen for that moment when an author pushes back. Sometimes that confidence is there from the beginning, and other times you do have to search for it. Finding that moment is the spark that keeps me coming back and makes me feel like a contributor to the conversation.
That moment of pushback is an inflection point. It’s when you can begin to work together and say, “Okay, your aim is this. This is how I’m not following you there. How are we going to make this better together?”
Exactly. That’s one reason I often phrase my suggestions as questions—because I see myself as on the same team, not an adversary saying, “This is how it should be.” I don’t think writers are interested in that.
It seems to me that there are basically two ways to get someone to buy your book. The easier way is to write about something that people have an active interest in. The other way, which is perhaps one challenge in selling poetry, is to conjure a new interest in a reader.
That’s interesting, and it brings up what poetry can do. I’m hearing myself automatically talking about subject matter and essays—the nonfiction part of myself. In terms of poetry, I hope that there’s something about poetry where the reader not only has to be nudged toward the interest of the poet, but the reader is also asked to perform a great feat of empathy: inhabiting that poet’s voice.
In a poem, “I” might be the poet who wrote that statement, or maybe not—regardless, it’s the reader. I don’t think that intimacy is achieved in any other art form. Part of the interest in reading poetry, and part of what is gained by reading it, is this leap into another identity. The poet creates the space for this to happen.
I’m interested in poetry that does collide with our culture. Vijay Seshadri is writing about an immigrant culture, and I think that’s something the Pulitzer committee probably responded to in some way. What does that amalgamation of voices and languages sound like on the streets of Brooklyn? You can open any of Vijay’s three books, but particularly 3 Sections, and overhear that street-level conversation he’s attuned to. I love books that get under the language in that way. There is a moment of familiarity, but the way the poet has transformed that is unfamiliar to us. That’s the unsettling area where poetry lives. But the poet does have to beckon us over there through some kind of subject matter, or through some kind of voice.
Tony Hoagland comes to mind. He’s a controversial writer for this very reason: He takes on voices that are sometimes very affable and sometimes very funny, but he is also willing to give voice to voices that are disturbingly ugly. In the process, he raises questions about American culture, about what poetry should or shouldn’t be talking about. We don’t always have to agree with Tony. And yet I’m excited by that risk, to inhabit these characters, these voices that we have to admit are part of American culture.
I love that he tramples on the idea that there’s a limited domain of interest that poets should engage with. He, along with a poet like Matthea Harvey, engages with questions I actually have, rather than ascending into a rarefied aesthetic landscape.
Poetry as a democratic act. That Whitmanesque impulse is something I aspire to. The Dickinsonian impulse very much alive in Matthea Harvey’s or Mary Jo Bang’s work. But it’s the collision of those impulses that I think makes poetry great.
That reminds me of the poems Tracy K. Smith was reading last night—those postcards by the victims of horrible acts of murder writing back to their vanquishers. But they do it with this voice of beauty, this acceptance of their fate. I remember first reading them, and it was shocking—most people would assume you should take those stories and witness them in a very particular way. But for Tracy, it’s really only an act of empathy if you include everyone in the story—that includes the person that we don’t like to look at. Tony would say that sometimes the person you don’t want to look at is yourself.
That’s poetry. What a powerful little thing a poem is.
I want to talk about audience. Is poetry read only by other poets?
A lot of people say that.
What’s your take?
No. Everybody is reading poetry. Robert Pinsky talks about poetry being the thing that exists from the breath. He says we walk around all day saying poetry to each other, and there is some truth to that. We’re helpless in the way that our language is cadenced. If you think widely, in the way Pinsky encourages us to, we’re speaking poetry all the time.
Of course there is something about the act of codifying and distilling the language into a piece of art that’s different from the way we’re talking now. Our culture gives that heightened moment to the poem. Even when a writer like Tony is doing something very conversational, there is still something ceremonial and ritualistic about the poem that can be the place where readers and audiences get lost. That heightened place gives poetry its great power in our culture, and maybe that’s why we turn to it for inaugurations and weddings and funerals. Poetry moves us in a different, powerful way. Those are other ways everybody is engaged in poetry.
But is everyone engaged in the purchase of poetry?
Right, right, right. Well, in that way, no, poetry still tends to be niche. [Laughs.]
How have you seen the audience for books of poetry change?
I’ve been engaged in the publishing side of that question since the mid-1990s, and also as an MFA student. MFA programs have continued to increase in numbers. There’s a lot to be made of the effects of that rise—what the workshop model means for poetry, aesthetically, and I’m engaged in that question too. But in terms of audience, those MFA programs are talking about poetry in their classrooms and in their auditoriums, and that has only increased the audience. When authors do appearances, even if the book isn’t part of that transaction, the poem is—and that is incredibly valuable, even if it doesn’t contribute to the bottom line of a publishing house.
I tend to be pretty optimistic about the audience for poetry. Writing programs and reading series, book groups, National Poetry Month, Billy Collins on the radio—there are more ways to access poetry than there ever have been before. It is an exciting time to be a poet, and to be a poetry editor trying to keep your ear to the ground in terms of where poetry is being experienced. It’s a much wider response than one might initially assume. Many of our poetry books have been our best-selling titles in these last few years. Some of those sales are propelled by the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize and the National Book Award, and so on. Some are propelled by the excitement about what a particular voice has to offer.
Tony Hoagland is an incredibly populist and popular poet. Tony is not hitting the New York Times best-seller list, but he has hit a cultural nerve. Claudia Rankine, a poet who’s also doing very slippery nonfiction poetry stuff, is also hitting a nerve with her fearless way of talking about America. We’re in multiple printings. Any publisher would kill to have numbers like we have on those books.
Is every first book of poems going to perform that way? Of course not. But it’s wonderful when poets do tip their work toward a wider audience, because that allows us to publish more so-called new and emerging voices.
I have only seen poetry become more popular, more read, more taught and discussed. It’s part of our mission to find that audience. Absolutely we market our books toward those writing programs. We go to AWP and make sure those books are front and center, trying to get those books on syllabi that get taught time and again. We’re out trying to make all kinds of things happen for these books. But also finding those—it goes back to the subject matter, and the way those authors sort of talk about their subject matter—how can you reach those audiences for that book?
This fall we’re publishing a book by Katie Ford, a marvelous younger poet. It’ll be her third book, Blood Lyrics. There’s a section in it about experiencing an extremely premature birth, at twenty-four weeks. And it’s a story of survival, it’s a story of a hospital, it’s a story of a marriage, it’s a story of a childhood, it’s all these things. I haven’t seen poetry hit that subject so head on, and with such an urgent voice. We want to reach people outside of the usual poetry audience for whom that’s personally urgent. We think that way about each of our books: How do we reach an audience that might not be sitting around and waiting for a poem? But when the right poem does reach them, it changes their worldview.
Do believe that there is no segment of America that cannot be reached by a poem?
Absolutely. It’s naïve, perhaps. [Laughs.]
No! If you don't believe that, it’s probably time to fold up.
You do see Random House taking on Billy Collins in a particular way. There is a commercial opportunity with poetry too.
Oh, that reminds me: I brought you a copy of one of my books. It’s an anthology titled Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden.
Oh, good! I've been so curious about this, because it’s for the masculine audience that Tony Hoagland, for one, is reaching. Men do read books. I’m not only talking about poetry. The publishing industry seems to ask itself whether that’s true, but very clearly, men do.