Monday 5 May 2014
Interview with John C. Mannone
John C. Mannone has work in Agave, BlazeVOX, Tupelo Press, Raven Chronicles, Poetica Magazine, Synaesthesia, 3Elements Review, The Baltimore Review, Prime Mincer, Pirene’s Fountain, The Pedestal, Tipton Poetry Journal and others. He’s the poetry editor for Silver Blade and Abyss & Apex, and an adjunct professor of physics in east TN. His work has been nominated three times for the Pushcart.Visit The Art of Poetry: http://jcmannone.wordpress.com
10 Fundamental Questions for Poetry Editor John C. Mannone
1. Given the ways contemporary authors have been trying to compose all kinds of poetry, how would you define ‘poetry’?
Perhaps it is better to define what it is not; that might be easier (and fewer tomatoes might be hurled at me). I recommend one reads my “position paper” on my website/blog, The Art of Poetry (http://firstname.lastname@example.org). Also, I was just reading Ezra Pound’s discourse on Modern poetry (albeit it we are now in a Postmodern era), which strongly insists on the very things I do (though I ususally look for more). Abbreviated, his suggestions are: avoid abstractions, use distilled language, have musicality/rhythm of words (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237886).
2. Many people say poetry is dying. Do you agree or disagree with this statement, and why?
Poetry might not ever have been high on the mainstream reader’s list of literature to read, but it has never been a realistic (money-making) market. However, in literary circles it is far from dying. Look at all the new journals still calling for poetry! And now with many of them bundling audio, as well as photographs & other visual arts, poetry is accessing another audience.
3. What defining features do you think ‘best’ poetry should possess? In other words, what is your personal or working definition of ‘best’ poetry?
Though I personally prefer a poem with lyrical qualities, the best contemporary poetry may not be replete with poetic devices, especially metaphorical language. However, it must strive towards the same goal: significant emotional impact using the fewest words. In my opinion, that impact cannot be achieved unless there is layering and texture to the poem. A poetic description of nature is not a nature poem. Regardless of how sensory the words might be, they must transcend description and reach into an emotional core, to a place where a statement is made about the human condition, something existential. It doesn’t have to be profound, but it must be human, it must exhibit elán, that stylistic elegance that’s hard to describe. Other nonnegotiable items are impeccable rhythm and the music of words (see my comment above in the context of Ezra Pound’s). That must be there even in conversational pieces. For narratives, whether long form, documentary or anecdotal, I recall and embrace what Ted Kooser said about story. The piece must rely on more than story to be lifted into poetry. I think I discussed above what those lifting mechanisms are.
4. What are the most important makings of a ‘great’ poet? – please name 3 greatest poets the world has produced thus far.
A great poet is unforgettable and profound. Their words transcend the page. I cannot limit myself to three, but I’ll mention three that immediately come to mind: William Shakespeare (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/122), Robert Frost (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robert-frost), Pablo Neruda (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/pablo-neruda).
5. Who are the 3 most important or noteworthy contemporary poets according to your personal/working criteria?
Again, there are so many that it is unfair to single three out. There are so many wonderfully different voices. I can say that Linda Pastan (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/linda-pastan) has been influential, as has Robert Haas (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/194) and Ted Kooser (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/ted-kooser)
6. 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?
First, to increase the value of poetry to fiction and creative nonfiction writers (who have a much greater part of the market), poets (and writers) must help them realize the value of poetry. It begins with the disspelling of the myth that all poetry is inaccessible. And even more importantly, that poetry will significantly improve their own genres, whether literary or not.
Second, to increase the value of poetry to the literary reader, fiction and creative nonfiction writers should implement poetic technique so that the reader has an enhanced experience. If the writers talk about these things via social media (especially blogs), then awareness among readers increases.
Third, to increase the value of poetry to the mainstream folks might be a futile battle. Entertainment-only poetry is not poetry. Let them be content with silly songs and poor perceptions of what poetry is: metrical rhyme that is inaccessible. Poets can dispel these incorrect perceptions and the bad experiences many may have had in high school (especially when a poem is beaten to death with a rubber hose as Billy Collins had put it in his poem “Introduction to Poetry”) one person at a time. For example, whenever I give a lecture in astronomy, I will offer a closing poem to increase the audience’s experience (I blend in history and culture, as well a literature, with the sciences).
7. Which 3 poetry editors or magazines would you like to recommend to all poetry lovers? Or, which 3 are your most favourite poetry editors/journals?
This is like asking me what are my favorite fruits. I would say plums, figs, peaches today, but mangoes, pineapple, cherries tomorrow. And sometimes I forget about that lovely quince or pomegranite. However, among my favorites: Ploughshares, AGNI, Iodine Poetry Journal (I have a soft spot for them too because they were the first to accept my work), The Baltimore Review, Image, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review.
8. What are the most important or interesting things that you have learned about poetry writing/publishing as a poetry editor?
Read and Obey: It is a very sore point with me, as well as with many other editors I know, when submitters show they haven’t read (let alone complied with) the guidelines of the magazine to get a sense of the editor’s/venue’s aesthetics. When I submit, I always try to be sensitive to what venue requires/desires.
Show Dynamic Range: I cannot tell you how many times I see the same structural form or style I receive from a single author me as editor (of two fine journals of speculative literature). I have learned how important it is to give an editor a wide range of style, structure, and even voice.
9. What is the most or least enjoyable part of being a poetry editor?
The most enjoyable thing of being a poetry editor is when I see how independent submissions to a non-themed journal organically come together so that the whole slate of poems are better than the sum of them individually. It’s like seeing art grow before your eyes. I also like to publish new voices next to celebrated ones. But what I disdain most of all is what virtually every editor I know also disdains—sending “rejections.” To mitigate that displeasure, I, unlike most other editors, will take the time to make a personal note (except perhaps in the worst cases where the poetry is ill-crafted and it is clear that there was no attempt to have read the guidelines). But even when I don’t give a personal note, my form rejections are tiered. I try to keep away from the insulting ones in wide circulation today. To lessen my pain, especially if the work has potential, but still needs more remediation that I can specifically suggest, I’ll offer names to easier markets, or ones that serve a different aesthetic. I might get a perfectly good science fiction poem, but if it lacks literary depth, I’ll have a hard time publishing it.
10. Given your rich experience as editor of Silver Blade and of Abyss & Apex, what advice would like to offer to those who actively participate in various kinds of literary contests and those who seldom do so?
Since we don’t offer contests (yet), I can only speak of how I personally approach poetry & writing contests. I like entering ones with high stakes, no fee contests (who doesn’t?) Yes, there are often a large number of contestants, but you might surprise yourself despite the odds. It was a real morale booster for me when I was a finalist several times. That alone encouraged me to enter fee-based contests. I look closely at the first prize-to-fee ratio. If it less than 50:1, I will ususually dismiss it, but even then, I will probably not spend more than $20 (plus postage for mail-ins). (That’s a persponal limit. I’ve noticed the fees growing way beyond inflation; I won’t play into that.) In those marginal cases, I consider how many pieces I can submit and if there are additional perks, like an annual subscription to the journal (that I wouldn’t mind having), or a copy of the winning chapbook (at no additional fee). Here are some examples: Zocolo Poetry Prize ($1000, no fee), Mary Ballard Poetry Chapbook Prize ($500 + copies, no fee), New Millenium Writings ($1000, $17; all receive copy of issue), Rattle ($5000, $20 fee [cost of subscription]; all get 1-year subscription). There are many free contests and many fair ones.
Keep in mind that though the final judge may be an appealing draw to enter, your work still has to get through screeners. The final judge does just that, judge the finalists. I have asked contest administrators who are the screeners: Is it the editorial staff of the magazine/press, college students, MFA students, etc.? So unless the final judge sees all the entrees, researching his/her literary tastes is usually a moot point.
Reading previous winners is helpful to establish quality level, but unless the same judges are used it might be futile to find the aesthtics the contest folks are seeking.
Finally, if it a themed contest (or a general submission for that matter), work extra hard in making your interpretation of the theme fall outside the predicted ones. Think outside the box.