Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

Essay on Editing by Sascha Feinstein

Reflections on Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz & Literature
  1. How It Evolved
            The first issue of Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz & Literature appeared in December 1996, roughly a year and a half after I started teaching at Lycoming College, where I still work and edit the journal. (I'm the poet there, which is to say, fifty percent of the Creative Writing Program.) Almost immediately after my arrival in the fall of '95, a variety of faculty and administrators--including the college president--asked if I would resuscitate their defunct literary journal, Great Stream Review, but I had no interest in doing so; with respect to all efforts to run any journal, I felt the literary world did not need another generic one published by a largely unknown institution. If I were to undertake such a project, I explained, I wanted it to be unusual, if not unique, and I knew of no U.S. publication that focused on jazz-related literature.
             I was not inexperienced in this specialized genre. The Jazz Poetry Anthology, which I co-edited with Yusef Komunyakaa, had appeared in 1991; its companion volume, The Second Set, was slotted to be published in '95. My dissertation on jazz poetry--now split into two books--had due dates for the near future. I'd done plenty of legwork and, perhaps far more important, had created friendships from which I could draw. I knew I could create two issues (Winter and Summer) without worrying too much about unsolicited material, and that the journal would speak to a passion--jazz--shared by a stunning number of remarkable writers.
            Frankly, I knew very little about running a journal, although, as a graduate student, I had been an Associate Poetry Editor for Crazyhorse magazine. I had a small budget ($6,700--total--to cover biannual printings), and Lycoming College, being exclusively an undergraduate institution, has no graduate students; I had no hope, in other words, for a significant staff. But I asked one jazz-loving colleague, David Rife, to be the Associate Editor, primarily to proof texts; another colleague, Gary Hafer, would set the print and transfer files into a workable format for the printers. Their help was, and remains, invaluable.
            I titled the journal Brilliant Corners after a favorite album (and tune) by Thelonious Monk. I liked the jazz connection, obviously, as well as the suggestion of brilliance within the journal's four corners. Years earlier, my father had made for me a moving pastel of Monk, which I knew would make for a strong cover, and then I asked my friend Whitney Balliett, long-time jazz writer for The New Yorker, if he would compose a short essay about this portrait--thus establishing the journal's opening piece, "A Note on the Cover Art" (now the expected first work in each issue). I solicited work from phenomenal writers whose lives were shaped in part because of the music, and a startling number of them sent work, including Hayden Carruth, Billy Collins, Jayne Cortez, Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, Clarence Major, Colleen McElroy, and Al Young. The joint was jumpin'.
          But even in these early stages, I knew that the fairly rarified topic would not yield copious submissions, and that the quality of those submissions would range in the extreme. Nor was I remotely willing to publish work simply because it responded to jazz; I wanted first-class material--period. But that represented a serious challenge, simply in terms of quantity, and I thought that a third of each issue might best be filled with an interview: a respected writer or musician discussing the interaction between jazz and literature.
         As it happened, William Matthews was the poet-in-residence at Bucknell University, about half an hour away from our campus. Bill was a friend, and he loved visiting my home not because of my excellence in writing or knowledge of jazz but because my gorgeous wife also happens to be a genius in the culinary arts, and Bill loved food as much as he loved jazz. So I interviewed him--that was the first interview in Brilliant Corners--focusing on his poetry about bassist/composer/band leader Charles Mingus. Prior to the published interview, I reprinted his four poems for Mingus, and this, too, set a rubric: start each interview with four pages of poetry and/or prose excerpts by the artist.  (The first ten years of interviews were subsequently published in Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz & Literature. Sadly, no press seems interested in publishing the next ten years; the general trend now, it seems, is to focus on criticism, not primary source reflection. Make of that what you will.)
         Fans of jazz speak about the music with near religious fervor, and word got out pretty quickly. Now I get a steady stream of submissions. I'm proud to say that work from Brilliant Corners has been reprinted in scores of books and anthologies, including Best American Poetry (three or four times). Because of its unique focus, outstanding writers happily send their work my way instead of opting--as they so easily could--for publications with greater name recognition. I never take their generosity for granted, and I am always excited to encounter new voices--both.
  1. What I Look for in Submissions
         As Editor, I have prided myself on equanimity: Everyone, no matter what the background, gets a fair read. I've rejected work by "supremely famous" writers; I've published first-time writers who later thanked me for "starting" their careers (understandable but misplaced gratitude, since my only objective has been to publish first-class writing). I read every submission that crosses my desk, regardless of name recognition. As Mary Ruefle once said to me in an utterly different circumstance: "You know the real deal within seconds."
         I don't have any strict definition of "jazz literature" or, more specifically, "jazz poetry," in the same way that I cannot adequately define either jazz or poetry. I do believe, however, that the work must be informed by jazz. I truly dislike when jazz is used like a garnish, as though mentioning John Coltrane immediately makes the poem cool. My accented word--informed--requires knowledge, if not hipness. When I read poems submitted to Brilliant Corners (or in any other context, for that matter), my primary interest has to do with the piece as a whole: Have I been captivated? Is there energy? Has the poem significantly moved beyond the superficial attraction to abstraction? And so on.
         Too often, people read a tidbit about a jazz artist and suddenly assume that no one has ever thought about this history. Or they'll offer commentary that's truly worn. (Yes, we understand the irony that Lee Morgan gets shot at a club called Slugs. Yes, we know a saxophone is sexy.) Writing about jazz is like writing about any other topic in this sense: One needs to do the homework--for the music, as well as work that's been written on the subject. I don't want to come across as a snob, but I'm not at all interested in people who have heard a trio for the first time, thought it rocked their world, and suddenly felt authoritative about the subject. Jazz deserves more respect than that.
          I'm also not a fan of poems that offer so much biographical information that they read more like a Wikipedia entry than verse. (I even get submissions with footnotes!) In the age of Google, even a relatively obscure musician can be superficially researched in seconds.
          I am a fan, however, of work that has memorable imagery, and that feels good when spoken, and that startles the imagination--qualities by no means limited to jazz-related pieces. Like all editors, I encourage people to order sample issues. But most of all, know that the challenge of writing jazz-related verse requires both an understanding of the music and a devotion to poetry, to craft. That's not easy. To quote a haiku by Etheridge Knight: "Making jazz swing in / Seventeen syllables AIN'T / No square poet's job."

Sascha Feinstein is a poet, essayist, and editor. His books include two collections of poetry, Ajanta's Ledge and Misterioso (winner of the Hayden Carruth Award).
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