Monday 5 August 2013

Interview with Editor Susan Terris


Susan Terris, Editor of Spillway Magazine, and Poetry Editor: Pedestal Magazine, In Posse Review

Susan Terris' book GHOST OF YESTERDAY, New & Selected Poems was published in 2013 by Marsh Hawk Press. Ms. Terris is the author of six full-length books of poetry, fourteen chapbooks, and three artists’ books. Journal publications include: The Southern Review, FIELD, and Ploughshares. She  had a poem from FIELD in PUSHCART PRIZE XXXI. She’s editor of Spillway Magazine and a poetry editor for Pedestal Magazine and In Posse ReviewMs. Terris has a prior career in the field of children’s books where she had 21 books (mostly young adult fiction) published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Macmillan, Scholastic, and Doubleday. In addition to writing & journal editing, she does freelance editing of book-length poetry manuscripts and teaches workshops on “The Making of a Chapbook”.  With CB Follett, she hosts a series of weekend workshops taught by poet David St. John.


PP: Given the ways contemporary authors have been trying to compose all kinds of poetry, how would you define ‘poetry’?

ST: Poetry is not prose. The best poetry is not “about” something but a made piece of art with multiple layers of meaning. Its language needs to be musical yet muscled. It requires compression. Stanza breaks and line breaks must be strong enough to add power and movement to a poem. Poetry—rhymed, free verse, whatever—is not only words on a page but a creative endeavor meant to make you feel something. It needs memorable images, ones that don’t rely on overused adjectives or adverbs—but propels the reader ahead with well-chosen verbs and interesting nouns. As a poet and as an editor, I like many different styles of work; but, to me, the best poetry surprises and includes the reader in the surprise.

PP: Many people say poetry is dying. Do you agree or disagree with this statement, and why?

ST: If poetry was dying, why would there be so many students battling to get into poetry classes at colleges, MFA programs, PhD programs in poetry? If poetry is dying, why does everyone turn to it for weddings, funerals, inaugurations, and all significant occasions? Why does Garrison Keillor offer poems to his radio audience? Surely, he doesn’t think it’s dying. Poetry will never die, because it reaches into the depth of the self and produces reactions that surprise and delight the reader or listener.

When I was writing in the field of children’s books, a stranger at a party, upon hearing I wrote for children, would address me in words of one syllable. Now if I tell a stranger I am a poet, usually he or she looks for an excuse to walk away. Why? People have an inherent fear of being ignorant about poetry. BUT just read poems aloud to any of these strangers and see the reaction, the enthusiasm, the aha! moments.
Not enough people read poetry; but as poets we must try to educate them to listen to more of it. Poetry—an ancient art form—is, after all, meant to be read aloud. We can keep it from dying, not only by educating students and reading it aloud but also by trying to bring more of it into the everyday lives of children and well as adults.

PP: What defining features do you think ‘best’ poetry should possess? In other words, what is your personal or working definition of ‘best’ poetry?

ST: I’m repeating myself but:
Musicality of line, interesting line & stanza breaks
Good imagery, but not imagery conveyed by too many adjectives or adverbs
Poems where I learn something new
Poems where each line makes me what to know what the next line is going to hold

PP: What are the most important makings of a ‘great’ poet? – please name 3 greatest poets the world has produced thus far.

ST: In English: William Shakespeare, John Milton, W. B. Yeats
In other languages: Dante, Wislawa Szymborska, Pablo Neruda

PP: Who are the 4 most important or noteworthy contemporary poets according to your personal/working criteria.

ST: Theodore Roethke, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Ruykeyser

PP: Considering the contemporary poetry writing/publishing reality, what are the most important changes that you think should be made to promote poetry as a worthy cause?

More poetry read aloud in homes.  More poetry read aloud in schools, starting at kindergarten and first grade. More community & public readings of poetry.  More book reviews of volumes of poetry. Any & all efforts to remove the idea that poetry is so esoteric that it’s meant only for the highly-educated elite.

PP: Which 3 poetry editors or magazines would you like to recommend to all poetry lovers? Or, which 3 are your most favorite poetry editors/journals?

ST: Kenyon Review, FIELD, American Poetry Review

PP: What are the most important or interesting things that you have you learned about poetry writing/publishing as a poetry editor?

ST: Almost all the poems I receive for Spillway, where I am the editor, or for Pedestal and In Posse Review, online journals where I am poetry editor, are good, in one way or another. The ones I reject feel, in general, like lineated prose or they lack the all-important element of surprise. Or, especially in a longer poem, they have stanzas or passages that are weaker than the rest of the piece. To publish a poem, I have to fall in love with it. With all of it. For me, it’s always about the poems – not about who the poet is or how many publishing credits that poet has. In fact, I never read the cover letters until after I have read the poems.

PP: What is the most or least enjoyable part of being a poetry editor?

Rejecting poems – especially by poets I’ve published before and by poets who are just beginning to publish.
Proofreading Spillway before it goes to the printer.

Finding those original poems, in any poetic voice or style, which I admire, love, and wish I’d written!
The actual act & art of editing. I am a hands-on editor, one who often makes suggestions I feel will improve a poem. These usually involve pacing, substituting for over-used adjectives, making the ending of a poem stronger, etcetera.

Putting a magazine together, not alphabetically by author’s last name, but like a small anthology where one poem fits (I hope) almost seamlessly between the poem before it and after it.

Helping promote the work of many poets whose work I value.


  1. What a breath of fresh air! Lovely addition to your poetry journal. You asked some really great questions, and Ms. Terris was an excellent choice as first editor to respond to them. I loved her definition of poetry. I want to print out this page and refer to it as a reminder before and after the muse strikes. I just discovered and fell in love with Szymborska a few months ago in my unschooled hunt for poetry and poets who have that "musicality" and "muscle", the memorable imagery that invokes feeling, and the inventive word usage that Ms. Terris described. I have subconsciously sought in the poetry I read (and would like to write) all of the elements Ms. Terris mentioned, though I did not know to name all of them. Reading a poem by a truly great poet always feeds me at the deepest level of my soul but at the same time always leaves me hungry and yearning at the deepest level, which makes me want to create something of beauty myself. All great art affects me this way. Thank you for the inspiration your journal provides.

  2. Cheryl Marie, thank you so much for the good words. You can't go wrong admiring the poetry of Szymborska! Keep on writing. . . .