Context and Accountability: This Editor's Story
The first time I saw a copy of Louisiana Literature, I was in my philosophy professor's office waiting for our independent study session to begin.
I'd never seen a literary journal before, apart from the undergraduate one I helped edit. Everything about this issue of LaLit was refined. Its cover was heavy, textured card stock with a vintage woodcut image. The paper inside was really high-bulk, beautiful stuff. And the text font was classier than any textbook I'd read.
Leafing through its pages, I saw that the journal was housed at Southeastern Louisiana, a school I knew from being recruited out of high school. The editor's name was Tim Gautreaux, which really impressed me as he was person of Acadian decent born and raised in south Louisiana. Our culture has contributed many things to Louisiana history, but precious few of them involve literary accomplishment, so a Gautreaux being in charge sealed the deal for me, for sure. About the time I got to the issue's contents, though, my philosophy professor came in and set us to our lesson.
I must have done a decent job discussing Copleston that day, because Dr. Snowden gave me the copy of LaLit to take home as a reward. And I dove into it as soon as I got back to my room. In the front matter, I discovered you could subscribe to the journal (novel concept!), so I peeled off a check and mailed in my subscription card. I also saw you could submit poems to the journal, so I printed off the five I had written in the only creative writing course I'd taken as an undergraduate, even put the trifold on them our professor had shown us in class, stuck them in an envelope with an SASE like the instructions said, and put them in the mail, too.
I didn't get very far into the half dozen or so poems the issue contained before I realized I had done everything out of sequence! My own poems were nothing at all like the work Tim Gautreaux had selected for his journal. Even with my untrained eyes, I could see that the poems in Louisiana Literature were highly crafted. The lines were all solid and balanced, broken at end stops or on nouns with all phrases whole. My own lines, unfortunately, were randomly broken wherever I thought they looked wide enough.
The subjects of the poems in the issue varied, but the poems were all driven by a sense of narrative where the poems I'd sent in were hinged on big ideas I'd learned in Dr. Snowden's class. Or worse, were retellings of William Blake poems!
There was also an air of understatement running through every poem included in the issue. In concert, these poems worked like a master class in tone. I learned more about negative capability in the 30 minutes reading that half-dozen poems than I'd learned in two years studying Keats in class! I also realized the poems I'd submitted were a horrible fit for LaLit with all their loud ideas and reaching for attention.
By the time my form rejection arrived from the Louisiana Literature staff, I'd managed to get my hands on three other issues of the journals and had begun some earnest study of the magazine's aesthetics. I had entered grad school as a creative writing student, and wanted more than anything to publish a poem in LaLit. I studied its pages and wrote poems to fit. I tracked down work by poets published in the journal already, as best I could pre-internet, and worked to turn myself into a poet Tim Gautreaux felt comfortable including in his journal.
This pursuit of one journal's principles led me through the composition of the 25 poems for my M.A. thesis, and it produced several batches of poems I felt confident sending out to other journals I'd discovered along the way, saving the five I thought "best" to send to Louisiana Literature.
Nearly two years after seeing my very first literary journal on a professor's desk, I received my very first acceptance from Tim Gautreaux. He selected the title poem of my thesis for publication in LaLit, "What You Think of the Out-There at Twenty," and did more than he could ever know to start me on my way.
I went to the University of Arkansas to study under Miller Williams, Jim Whitehead, and Heather Ross Miller, who introduced me to the world of writing, taught me the ins and outs of technique and form, and took me on a grand tour of the publishing world by introducing me to a long and necessary list of books and writers.
I never lost track of Louisiana Literature in all that newness and nowness, though. In fact, the journal was the litmus test I applied to every journal I met in Fayetteville. I compared its goals and aspirations to the Southern Review, Laurel Review, Kansas Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and on and on as I read and grew. I did my best to learn each journal's editorial direction as I had Lalit's. Approaching lit mags like this served as an apprenticeship in taste and choice, no doubt. And while I wasn't able to connect to every journal's taste/vision, I appreciated the chance to hone in on them. Doing so certainly helped my acceptance rate as a poet.
It was, after all, about the writing. Then, anyways.
With an MFA in hand, and homesick all the way north in Arkansas, I went looking for a job close to home. As life would have it, I landed a spot at Southeastern and was assigned to the Louisiana Literature staff almost immediately by my new department head.
I had met Tim Gautreaux at a literary conference a year or so after he'd published my poem and was able to thank him properly, but other than that I'd had no contact with him or his staff at all since that publication. As strange as it might sound, it never even occurred to me that I might work on the LaLit staff when I applied to Southeastern. Really, I only thought of getting closer to my family.
Working as poetry editor under Tim Gautreaux for a year, and then continuing under new editor David Hanson, gave me an opportunity to put my study of the journal into practice. Every poem I read for LaLit, I read with Tim's eyes as well as my own. Even when I thought my taste and choices might diverge from Tim's, I always tried to make selections for the journal in the context of Tim's aesthetics. I always held myself accountable, still do, to the history of the journal's choices.
It's not just a matter, though, of asking myself, "What would Tim think?" when I read submissions for LaLit. Because taste evolves, because art evolves, it's more a matter of viewing my choices in a continuum with Tim's and with David Hanson's.
So what is it that fits a poem into this continuum when I encounter it reading submissions?
Tim valued craft and originality of utterance in the poets he published. So do I. Without knowing I was preparing to edit LaLit, I studied those values intently growing up, and I'm so entrenched in them, they are a natural part of my concept of what "publishable" means.
When I read submissions for Louisiana Literature, I am looking for reasons to publish poems, not reject them. No matter how many manuscripts are sitting in my inbox, I genuinely want to make acceptances. What draws my eye to a poem? I think it boils down to two reactions: envy and admiration.
To me, craft evidences itself in consistency of tactic and execution in poetry. Are line breaks logical? Are enjambments effective, leading me toward the unexpected or doubling down on nuance? Are the poet's choices fresh and startling, both in terms of form and in terms of language?
I don't have to get very far into a poem before I read enough to wish I had written it. That tinge of envy is the first indication I'm on to a poem I'd like to publish. New turns of phrase, new ways of jumping in to a poem, new perspective on familiar subjects, just plain old new ways of seeing--these are all examples of what Tim meant by "originality of utterance." But new doesn't necessarily mean better. That's where craft comes in for me.
I need to know a poet is in control of choices. Fundamentally, diction has to fit tone and subject seamlessly. Line breaks have to control meaning and pace effectively. I really have to feel a poet's choices, even those I would not have made myself, are the only ones that could've been made to execute the poem. If I am distracted by other possible options/choices while reading a poem, I'm transported outside the magic of the poem.
Simply put, I want everything in a poem to fit together well. I'm suspicious of poems with word choices, formal choices, or even moral choices that come off as arbitrary. I don't want arbitrary in my architecture, my surgery, my engineering, my cooking, my parenting. In the poetry I admire and envy, choices (even ones I wouldn't make myself) have to have some reasoning behind them. I love it when I see a poet's choices at play in the poem. I guess it's another thing I picked up in philosophy class: design is proof of something.
And since I've been hovering around it a good bit, I have to say my personal tastes and my own writing have absolutely no bearing on my editorial choices. As a poet, I'm easily distracted by new writers and their poems. I fixate almost daily on new voices. One day I'm reading every poem I can find by Joan Naviyuk Kane and trying my darnedest to write poems like her. The next, I'm on to Joe Wilkins. Then it's Rose McLarney. And on and on. All that kinetic consumption helps me grow as a writer, expands my understanding of voice and technique. But, man, what a mess I'd make of Louisiana Literature if I built issues like that!
This is where allegiance to the history of the journal, holding my self accountable to that history, helps me keep the quality of the journal consistent. Even as I allow it to grow and evolve.
And, in all honesty, I wouldn't publish many of my own poems. My mistakes scream off the page at me. I live with those choices every day, and really don't find much to admire or envy there.
I've had the privilege of working on the Louisiana Literature staff for 25 years now, and studied the journal with real purpose for five years before that. It's pretty safe to say what I know about poetry, writing it and reading it, is based in my association with the journal.
Every single day, I get a chance to usher LaLit along. I do so knowing there's an unbroken line from the very first acceptance Tim Gautreaux made as editor of the journal, through all the choices David Hanson made, and all the way up to the poem I accepted last Monday.
This line may not be very straight, but I can promise you it's connected and steady, and I'm moving it forward as best I can, within the context of and accountable to the journal's history.
Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. His latest collections are Elliptic (Yellow Flag Press, 2016), Revenant (Blue Horse Press, 2016), and Bone-Hollow, True: New & Selected Poems (Texas Review Press, 2013). He has recently been appointed Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017-2019.