Established in 1959 by Nelson Bentley, Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, and Erol Pritchard, Poetry Northwest is a brilliant example of a literary magazine’s capacity to endure despite—or perhaps because of—its regional focus. Before the Internet enhanced connections within the national writing community, the Seattle-based magazine was one of the few nationally distributed venues for voices from the fairly isolated northwestern United States. Though the road to the magazine’s present incarnation hasn’t been altogether smooth—Poetry Northwest was on hiatus from 2002 to 2004, was revived in Portland, Oregon, and is now back in the Seattle area, housed at Everett Community College—it is still going strong. While working on his fourth issue as editor, Kevin Craft, who succeeded David Biespiel in January 2010, discussed the importance of community, as well as a measured approach to editing, to the magazine’s success.
Poetry Northwest moved from Portland back to Seattle when you became editor. What did that mean for the magazine?
The magazine was part of the University of Washington from 1963 until 2002 and was losing money, as most journals do, so it went under. David Biespiel, who lived in Portland, adopted it and ran it there from 2004 to 2009. I like to think of those years as our years in the wilderness, wandering. You have to go through that period in order to find your true self, but our coming back to Seattle in late 2009 was greeted with cheers by the community.
So returning was like beginning again. Do you have advice for a lit mag start-up?
My advice is to surround yourself with good people, good readers. Also, know what you’re looking for. You get a lot of good poems, but you have to have a shaping instinct. I’m not thinking of the magazine as a random collection of poems. I want them to have a loose thematic coherence, so the magazine becomes a pleasure to read, like a book.
Despite a brief hiatus, Poetry Northwest has been around for a long time. What’s the key to its longevity?
Partly it’s the distinct personality of this part of the world and the poets here who have been involved in the magazine. It’s a voice for the community, a forum for dialogue between this region and other parts of the world. We’re all so socially networked now that Seattle and Minneapolis and New York City seem part of the same circuit, but when you’re out here you do feel a long way from the East Coast. Being a flagship magazine calling attention to what’s going on out here has always been an important part of the magazine’s success.
How is the magazine taking advantage of the connectedness of today?
We’ve been doing more online features, but our website is not as busy or frenetic as some—digital burnout is something that I hope to avoid. I don’t want to overpower people with our online offerings. I want them to be something that people look forward to receiving.
Do you have any advice for people looking to submit to Poetry Northwest, or any journal for that matter?
The classic answer is, “Make sure you read the magazine first.” The other bit I always say is, “There is no rush to publication. Choose carefully where you want your poems to appear and wait until they are ready.” In the younger generation especially there’s the feeling that you’ve got to get out there, and frequently. That’s a burnout model. Good poetry takes time to accrete in the imagination as well as on the page. So my main advice is don’t rush it. There’s no place to get to. Even if you win the Pulitzer Prize, the next day you’ve still got to wake up and try to write the next poem.
Catherine Richardson is a writer, reviewer, and the managing editor of Washington Square.