Why is that first poem first? It’s the first impression and is going to define what we expect from the second poem. Does that second poem subvert those expectations or does it delight in continuing what we've seen, either by subject matter or voice or form on the page? In that first movement, the poet can bring you into the collection, or keep you out. I want to interrogate those things.
You’re talking a lot about organization and flow.
I don’t want to make it sound like we read a poetry book the same way we read a novel. But I do think that it’s valuable for the poet and editor to get on the same page about the vessel of the poetry collection. Is there a sequence that is meant to take us through a particular kind of experience? I want the work of art, that vessel of the book, to be respected by the reader, so that the reader doesn’t just want to flip around. In a new and selected collection, sure, go ahead and flip. But for a single volume in which the poet has thought very carefully about that sequencing, I want to make sure that experience is there for the reader. How do the poems accrue? Does this collection take us somewhere?
What about the individual poems? Are you working on them, too?
It’s the same thing.
What if a poem has been previously published in a magazine?
It really depends on the poem, and also where that poem fits in that manuscript. It’s a really different thing when the poem is by itself in the New Yorker as opposed to when it is in the middle of a poetry book, or if it’s the first or final poem. That might mean changing some lines or a title to fit the sequencing.
Some poets say, “Oh no, that poem appeared in Poetry magazine, that’s got to be just how it is!” Sometimes it does work that way. But something really different happens when a poem moves into the pages of a single poetry volume. The overall book needs to operate the way a single poem does. That first poem operates as the first line of a great poem across the book. That fifth poem is the fifth line.
One thing I think about is the sequence for each poem, where it fits and why it fits there. Is that the right title? Is this the right way into the poem? We call it throat-clearing when there’s a first stanza or a first paragraph that can be removed or trimmed down. Of course, you have to make changes by understanding that if it is a sonnet, it needs to remain fourteen lines!
If there’s a very particular style, lineation, use of capitalization, punctuation, all those—I help find the right conventions for that individual poem as well as the conventions that fit the entire book. If something seems off from the poet’s own conventions, I’ll point it out. Very small things like a change in capitalization can potentially get in the way for a reader.
And then I edit for meaning. Does the poem really start here, does the poem really end here, should this penultimate line really be the last line? It is making those kinds of suggestions without, I hope, being interruptive. If nothing else, I hope making suggestions like these allows the poet to get back into the poem. Writers can get stuck. Sometimes it’s just helping them to get back in.
Some poets like early involvement, some do not. Every poet is different, and every poet’s process is different. It keeps my job interesting, and it’s one of the things I love.
Does your editorial process with poets differ from the prose writers?
I’m surprised how similar it is. The reason I say that is I think you’re dealing with pieces, and any time you have two poems or essays or chapters rubbing up against each other, do you want the heat and energy of friction, or a subtler bridge between those two things?
The nonfiction I tend to work on is often by writers who also identify on some level as poets. On Immunity by Eula Biss has a deeply poetic way of sentence-making and argumentation that feels very natural to me, as someone who works with a lot of poetry. There is a lyric insistence in the writing and metaphor-making in that book. I’d say something similar about The Empathy Exams. At the end of that book there’s a cadence towards a revelatory end of the final essay that feels to me poetic.
You do move from the line to the sentence, and yet there is something about unit-making that feels akin. I hope editing one makes me good at editing the other. It may not be for me to say. I hope it gives me an attention to language. That’s at the heart of Graywolf: that the information being offered with a book of nonfiction is being offered in a very artful way, and the same might be true for a line of poetry.
Have you ever edited a novel?
I never have.
Do you have any inclination to?
I’d love to. We have so many other good editors that it’s probably for the best in terms of workload, but I love reading short stories and novels and fiction in translation.
Who are your favorite novelists?
Per Peterson is a remarkable, amazing novelist to me. It goes back to that Scandinavian silence: No one creates that quiet landscape better than Per Peterson. Another Graywolf writer, Kevin Barry, is an Irish phenom. I love Marilynne Robinson; Housekeeping and Gilead are remarkable. I’m a huge reader of Paul Auster. Louise Erdrich. Charles Baxter. Toni Morrison. Denis Johnson.
Is there something that unites those writers? Is it their use of language?
Now that you say it, I think it is the use of language, but for very particular ends. The silence of Per Peterson is in direct opposition to Denis Johnson’s high-energy voice and dark humor in Jesus’ Son. An attention to and a delicacy of language is probably it, but with a real conceptual edge. Auster is such a conceptual writer. The pure language and sentence-making of Marilynne Robinson is remarkable stuff. And with Marylinne Robinson or Per Peterson, there are these quintessential images of those books that appear when I think about those books. I think about Housekeeping and that moment when the character falls down into the river where that train had fallen and the foot touches something metallic in the water, and it’s so visceral—a haunting image of the train that went down in that water.
It’s funny that when I start talking about fiction, I turn to the language of poetry, not just the language of sentence and unit-making, but the making of images. I suppose when I’m reading fiction I’m still looking for poetry.
Why do you think that is?
I'm helpless—and a really slow reader of fiction. I’m used to the density and intensity of a poem, and you do train yourself in certain ways.
You’ve never turned to a Lee Child novel?
[Laughs.] No, I haven’t. Not yet. I’ll get there.
Do you feel competitive with other poetry editors?
Yes, there is a competitive level, even for poetry. I look at other lists and say, “I wish we could have gotten that one!” And sometimes we lose a poet, or something you passed on ends up winning a prize or getting the review. And yet I choose to look at it more like: Thank goodness for all of this. I make a lot of mistakes, so it’s great to know that others are there to make sure that great work will find a home. It might take a year or three years or ten years, but more poetry is being published than ever before, and there are outlets for many kinds of poets.
Who is the editor who most inspires you to do your best work?
Fiona is first and foremost. Watching her work on particular books—she edits Percival Everett, who is a genius, and seeing her editorial work with Salvatore Scibona’s The End, which was a National Book Award finalist in fiction: Wow.
Has self-publishing had an impact on the world of poetry publishing?
Sure, it’s had an impact. Walt Whitman self-published, William Blake self-published. [Laughs.]
True! But what about digital self-publishing today? Do you see that as kin to the chapbook, something the poet could create himself and disseminate?
Perhaps now a poet’s website operates not unlike that, but maybe not quite. I almost wish self-publishing had more of an effect. Not surprisingly, I tend to think that going through a traditional publisher will always be a writer’s—including a poet’s—best option. It’s very hard for a poet to produce and design—let alone write—the work, and then market, distribute, and promote it. I’m glad the mechanism is there, but it could probably be a more vibrant area. Not everything needs to go through a traditional publishing house. Not everything needs to sell x number of copies. Not everything needs to be reviewed in the New York Times—nor is it!
I don’t see self-publishing as competing with what Graywolf is doing, or what FSG or Norton or Copper Canyon are doing. A lot of poets have first books they must get out of their systems. That’s not a knock against them. I get sent their self-published books, some of them beautifully done. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of self-publishing mechanisms that lean toward a vanity type of publishing that take advantage of poets in particular.
Your authors have won so many awards that I’m not sure if there are any left.
[Laughs.] We’ve had a good run, yes.
Do you have a white whale? One thing you won’t rest until you catch?
It’s remarkable to sit next to your poet when her name is called from the National Book Award podium. I won't pretend otherwise. It was remarkable to open up the New York Times and see that Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize. But that’s not why you’re in the game. We stand behind all of our books, firmly and enthusiastically. But there can only be one book a year that wins the Pulitzer, so it’s extraordinary when that happens.
We would publish those books anyway. We didn’t publish them with an assumption tied to them; we published them because they’re great. The authors are great and those individual books are great. A lot of books deserve that attention, and one or a handful of them get it. As far as a white whale, I want every success for all of our authors that they can possibly have. Whatever it is that keeps Graywolf strong, vibrant, and interesting, and whatever keeps our writers writing.
We talk a lot here about “again.” Can we get the next book by some of these authors? What can we do again with these authors that succeed, and what new authors can we bring on because of that success? It’s exciting having a New York Times bestseller that’s a fascinating and challenging collection of essays. That doesn’t happen very often, for sure. That felt a little like a white whale. The only previous time we’d been on the list was with Out Stealing Horses, and that felt like a huge confirmation.
What have been some of the hardest moments of your career?
The hardest moments have been turning down authors that I’ve worked with before. That’s incredibly painful. So is losing out on an author’s next book. That’s common enough, but we try to work with an author’s career whenever we can. You build relationships, professional and sometimes personal friendships with these authors whose work you continue to admire. But that just wasn’t the right book, or we didn’t do well on the previous one, and it might even be better for that author to go somewhere else. Those haunt me. It is hard to see another publisher take something that slipped through your fingers.
Have you ever had a crisis of confidence in what you’re doing? When you’ve stopped and had to ask: Can I keep doing this? Do I want to keep doing this?
Sure, there are day-to-day moments where things don’t seem to be going well, or sales aren’t what you would like them to be, or you didn’t land that author you hoped to work with. That’s been the minor key for me. My story is one of exuberant fortune and good luck. I am all the time reminding myself how fortunate I am to get to do this work. Everybody gets down, and you look into the abyss from time to time, but most of the time here has been stable. I love working with the people on the staff here, and I learn from them. We all do this together, and I love our authors.
An ongoing challenge for Graywolf, of course, is funding, and keeping our culture aware that it can’t take these kinds of risky books for granted. And then there are the challenges of being an editor and having two little kids and a family. But what a marvelous challenge that part of life is!
Part of my great fortune is trying to show those two boys you can still make a go of it in this cruel world. You can still do something you love, and it’s worth the sacrifice to do something you love even if it means you have to turn and face the wind of the culture. It’s a lovely and marvelous thing to bring something beautiful and meaningful and challenging into the world, and I hope that they’ll see that. I live for that.
How do you make a life that allows for artful thinking to be at the center of your existence? I think that makes me a better person, hopefully a better editor and, God willing, a better father and husband. I take this all incredibly personally. Certain parts of a meaningful life are sometimes at risk, too.
Who else inspires you?
One poet who has inspired me and changed me is Tomas Tranströmer. His lines strike me as inspiring for their vision, for their profundity, for making sense of darkness and conflict, and his life seems emblematic now for the very efforts of speech and meaning. I have tried to remember to live—and to edit—by these lines by Tranströmer, from his poem “The Half-Finished Heaven,” a sort of lifeline: “Every person is a half-open door / leading to a room for everyone.” I would offer these lines to anyone as inspiration. We are all capable of reaching each other.
What advice would you give a poet who is trying to place those first poems or that first book?
Read as much as you can. Understand that every part of this enterprise, whether it’s the poet’s part of it, the writer’s part of it, the editor’s part of it, the agent’s part of it, the publisher’s part of it, the magazine’s part of it—it’s a conversation. That conversation has to go two ways, and often more than two ways. Writers can sometimes get trapped in one-dimensionality, and I understand that, because it’s hard to place that first book, and at certain points in your career you look into the abyss and wonder how your work makes a difference. Reading other writers, reviewing other writers, and being involved in as many possible ways as you can with the art is incredibly valuable.
Don’t get caught in the trap of doing one kind of thing. Poetry might be just one aspect of your existence, but make sure that you are also x, y, and z—fill in as many blanks in your life as you can. It will make you a better writer, a more empathetic person. It will give you access to more experiences that will enhance your life. Nobody’s ever one thing.
Whitman: “I contain multitudes.”
Right. And Montaigne wrote something like, “It is very difficult not to be more than one person.” We are not singular entities, and we are all interconnected. What do you do with that as an artist? What do you do with that as someone who’s trying to be a conduit for other artists? That’s the editor’s question.
I want to get over any sense a writer might have that an editor is your adversary. There are hurdles and obstacles, but no one is your adversary. It’s easy to get down when you feel like any time you try to risk something—which is what the poet does, risk everything on the page—there’s somebody there to put a lid on it. I find that so anti-intellectual and problematic, and I see it frequently and try to ignore it as much as possible. But I love seeing all the ways that poets get past it.
I learned a lot by editing Leslie Jamison. Her book has made me think about things in a shifted way. Maybe another piece of advice is: Let yourself be changed.
Michael Szczerban is a senior editor at Regan Arts.