Most poets I know read literally hundreds of books, thousands of poems, every year. I do too. But it's different when I read for pleasure than it is when I read as an editor and publisher of Jacar Press, when I am looking to publish poetry collections and chapbooks, or individual poems for our online magazine, One. We also honor through our $500 Julie Suk Award, a book published each year by another literary press, and that requires a different approach, too.
For pleasure, as a reader, I look to be lost, swept up, moved, enlightened, filled with awe, made to feel horror or joy. I want to be transported beyond my life, or to a deeper point of understanding within it.
As an editor and publisher of Jacar Press I want those things, too, but the reading process is less subjective, less simply about what I like. I feel an obligation to distance myself from my own tastes a bit, to attempt to understand and enter the territory of each writer, to try to discern what aesthetic those who submit are writing from and how they are attempting to do that.
There are some things I've noticed in reading through the last decade. These are simply my observations, which will be different from the observations of other editors. I recognize that limitation. But this is what I'm seeing.
Mostly what I'm noticing, especially the last few years, is an explosion of new voices, of highly talented young poets from diverse backgrounds whose work is sometimes breathtaking. With these new voices, new perspectives, there seems to be an increasing willingness to incorporate elements of art, design, scrapbooking and ethnography on their pages, integrated with the words.
What seems to be dwindling? Lyric poetry, especially by mid-career and older, established writers.
Those manuscripts that are less exciting often share similar weaknesses. There are a lot of 90 page poetry books, published and unpublished, that have 40-50 pages of good poetry. Why expand a collection beyond its strongest poems?
I read a lot of poems that are well-crafted, but the writer doesn't seem to have much to say, offers mainly observations from their lives without any larger context or resonance. Conversely, there are a lot of poems that are passionate about their subject matter - often, now, contemporary politics - but don't seem concerned with craft.
Many collections and chapbooks appear to have no organizing principle, appear randomly put together. Sometimes alphabetically, sometimes based on when the poems were published. I like a poetry book to have a sense of movement, development, poem by poem. I want it to start somewhere and end somewhere and have a journey to get from one point to the other. This doesn't mean there has to be a causality, but I like some sort of connection poem to poem - theme, image, emotional development.
Title poems - those should be your strongest, I think, along with your opening and closing poem. I see a lot of title poems which aren't among the strongest in a collection. Opening and closing poems - those are the ones people will read first. One should invite, the other should arrive. Too often they don't. Too often the strongest poems are hidden in the middle pages of a collection.
The subject matter seems to change every couple years, too, as it should, influenced by contemporary events. During the Obama years, much of the political poetry we received as submissions focused on violence against African-Americans. Since 2016, the political poetry has increasingly focused on three areas - refugee issues, women's issues, and, of course, trump.
Personal situations influence what is written too - duh. A few years back, many people were writing about loved ones who had cancer or Alzheimer's. Recently, I've been seeing more personal accounts of addiction and abusive sexuality.
I'm not complaining about any of this, and I have written about many of these subjects myself. I'm just pointing out some of these things arrive in waves, land on your shore, and recede to the next wave. The challenge is, how do you make something timely to you, the writer, timeless to readers? Is that even necessary anymore? I suspect some would argue it's not. Maybe writing for posterity is an archaic concept.
At times it seems like MFA prompts are influencing the submissions. The Cento poem is everywhere this past year. Two years ago, the Ghazal. Rhymed formal verse is back - most of it not as sophisticated, honestly, as the best hip hop and spoken word artists.
In recent years I've seen a number of 'Where I'm From' and 'I Am' poems. After Layli Long Soldier became popular, a lot of submitted poems took the form of 'contracts' of sorts, using a repeated word, in the manner in which she uses 'Whereas' to introduce a sequence of short litanies. For a while we saw submissions that used a lot of 'Because' poems, and 'When I say....what I mean is...' poems.
A quick word about Design. Every designer has different tastes. I happen not to like templates, the standard - blare the title-picture-blare the author pattern. That is still the most comment. Followed by what I think of as the 'busy' cover, lots of design elements but not a traditional artistic compositional flow. Your cover matters. It allows your reader to make their first choice - to pick it up or not. The front cover needs to make a reader turn to the back cover, which then has to make s reader open the book. Back cover blurbs - very few people actually read them. They only look at the names. They seem written to assuage the ego of the poet, not to attract the reader.
It's difficult to write poetry. Even more difficult to write it well. Despite that, every year there are more people wanting to be published, rushing to be published. The late Kathryn Stripling Byer went 6 years between books. Li-Young Lee's The Undressing came out 10 years after his previous book.
I'd like to see poets be more selective, more cautious, about what they are trying to publish.As Ray Carver once said, "If the writing can't be made as good as it is within us to make it, why do it? In the end that's the only thing we can take to the grave."
Richard Krawiec has published two novels, a collection of short stories and books of poems, including, Women Who Loved Me Despite: Second Edition available from Sable, Books. He's received fellowships from the NEA, the PA Council on the Arts and the NC Arts Council.