Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

Essay: The Genesis of The Asheville Poetry Review: One Editor's Journey by Keith Flynn

When I moved back to Western North Carolina from New York City in 1993, I was singing in a rock band, The Crystal Zoo, and I landed right in the middle of this incredible literary and artistic renaissance that was taking place in Asheville. There was an explosion of activity in the downtown area, which had been unsafe a few years before. Coffee shops, art galleries, and indie record stores were springing up on every street corner. Three distinct groups were already meeting and talking actively about their writing. The performance poets had regular slam teams practicing at the Green Door, a multilevel gallery and performance space. There was a vibrant women's group centered around Malaprop's Bookstore, and the creative writing programs at UNC-Asheville, Western Carolina University, and Warren Wilson College were gaining national prominence.

I had already published one book and was about to release a second, The Book of Monsters. I realized that no one was documenting or publishing all the amazing work that was being produced. Since I had relationships with all the artists, and belonged to no one group in particular, I was the obvious choice to bring these slightly disparate elements into a single forum. I asked each of the various leaders to meet with me and discuss the possibilities of a literary journal. I was originally going to call it The Wedge and make it square and pocket-sized. When I discovered that was untenable from a production or layout standpoint (I was naive beyond belief), I gave up the more compact idea and the name. Someone, it may have been Bob Falls, said that we should keep it simple, just call it what it was: The Asheville Poetry Review. And so that just stuck. Originally, a few members of the Editorial Board helped to edit the ever-growing mountain of submissions, but it became abundantly clear, because of my travel and performing schedule, that arrangement wasn't going to work, so I edited the first few issues alone, with Lowell Allen providing the typesetting, and layout design after the first issue, when he wrote and told me, "You've got a great idea, but you need my help." And he was right, I did, and he was with me for the first twenty years of our existence before Beto Cumming, the designer for Iris Press, came on board and helped to keep the look of the journal vibrant and exciting.

The Asheville Working Press helped put together the first issue for me, silk-screening each cover individually. So that first issue is a real head-turner, a large square with every cover a different color. Thankfully, there was an enormous groundswell of support. I did fund-raisers with my band and organized readings and begged and borrowed and put up my own money for the first issue. We published 22 poets from Western North Carolina, 11 men and 11 women. We released that issue in June 1994 at the Asheville Poetry Festival and sold every copy we had.

I wanted the Review to have no political agenda; the only criteria for inclusion would be quality. My idea was to include translations in every issue to broaden the cultural exposure for poets outside the country and to include a rich sampling of work from the region itself. We always wanted to have different graphic artists competing for the cover space, and that would hopefully keep the artistic community interested in our efforts and help to give the journal a distinctive visual appearance. I have gradually tried to include more essays, interviews, and book reviews to give the Review more of a critical voice and create dialogue and historical perspective. We have also done occasional special issues of which I am very proud, such as the Special Celtic Issue in 1995, or the Ten Great Neglected Poets of the 20th Century, which came out in 2000, or the Special Jazz Issue in 2006, plus Special Issues for our 10th and 20th and 25th Anniversaries. There are almost always tribute sections inside each installment, featuring a generous sampling from the work of a poet that I admire, or that I feel deserves more attention. We've done special issues or translated poems from 22 different countries with sections by Hungarian, Breton, Celtic, French, and African writers, introducing many of them to American audiences for the first time. Every issue is a testament to the many well-known poets that we have attracted to our pages, but it is the neglected writers, or the up and comers, either from this culture or others, that gets my blood going, that makes the publication of this journal vital to me.

We have no university affiliation or non-profit status. We receive no federal funds or grant monies. We subsisted, in the early years, entirely on retail sales and subscriptions, and, since 2011, we have sponsored the William Matthews Poetry Prize, which gives cash awards to the best poems and we invite the winners to Asheville to speak at the award-winning Malaprop's Bookstore, always a champion of the journal, whose founder, Emoke B'Racz, has been on our Editorial Board from the beginning. As a consequence, some years are leaner than others, but the Review has always pretty much paid for itself. From those humble and unexpected origins, the Asheville Poetry Review has grown into an international journal that has published more than 1,800 writers and is distributed in both North America and Europe. It has been quite a ride.

When the first issue of Asheville Poetry Review was released in June 1994, the price of a gallon of gas was 1.05. The #1 song in the country was Whitney Houston's cover of the Dolly Parton ballad, "I Will Always Love You." Kurt Cobain had shoved a shotgun in his mouth and joined the immortals in April, the same month that 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda. In late June, O. J. Simpson was arrested for the murders of his estranged wife and her friend. Richard Nixon and Jackie O left their mortal coils a couple of months apart. For the first time in history, chain bookstores would outsell independent stores. "Pulp Fiction" and "Forrest Gump" were all the rage at the cinema, and the word "spam" was coined to recognize the glut of promotional ads that would flood the fledgling internet. I thought computers were only housed in huge buildings and were the size of a Prius. I thought we would put out two or three issues, and then I would start a press that would publish other books. The idea of making literary connections and building all these relationships just somehow never occurred to me. I thought of myself as more of a historian, in some ways, trying to capture a moment of that particular time, and saving it for others to enjoy in the future. I couldn't imagine yet what the future held, though my entire career has been buoyed by, and taken place inside, my editorship of this journal.

Technology is not an image of the world, or its mirror; it is a praxis whose purpose is to change the world or cast it aside. "Literature," said Boris Pasternak, "is life with all the boring parts removed." Poetry is our best vision of the world as it exists and what is good is always rare. Most of our thoughts of poetry are made of memories, or a world view filled with snapshots that string out along the clothesline of our consciousness, but memories deceive, and poetry, like all living things, must change as memories do, in order to survive. I'm hoping for another twenty-five or thirty years, but that is probably unrealistic. Bob Dylan said, "If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying." I want to continue to find new poets, shine a light on those who need more of it, and be part of the conversation that is poetry in this world. It's a rare thing. "I need the sea because it teaches me," wrote Neruda, "I move in the university of the waves." For our own private reasons, we commence the journey through poetry to find someone listening on the other side of this immense silence, for whom our efforts were intended all along, whether we know it or not. If I thought that we didn't matter to people, I would probably stop, but I guess I think, whether I'm right or not, that we would be missed, and that is enough. Maybe I just want to be the last shaggy Mammoth standing...

Learning to Embrace the Unexpected Astonishments

Poetry is the translation of feelings or perceptions that are, in some ways, previously unsayable. We have been conditioned to believe that our external reality is true and does not match our internal reality. But our brains are lit by what we see and what we think we see, making the process of the past just as real as the lived moment viewed by the eyes. The brain processes 400 billion bits of information per second, but we are only aware of about 2,000 of those. We spend the majority of our time eliminating waste, disposing of random sensory projections, accepting the symbols and imagery that occur the most or serve our body best. The integration of reality is always slower than its actuality. It takes silence to create poetry and the space to dream and dreaming in America is nursed in darkness and viewed with suspicion.

By the time most good poets start to publish their work consistently, they've amassed dozens of reaction slips, in all shapes and sizes. Even great manuscripts have failure rates worse than the best batting percentage of a major league player, and it is difficult not to quit. Remember Delacroix's remark: "To be a poet at twenty is to be twenty; to be a poet at forty is to be a poet." But the great John Keats also said that "poetry must come as naturally as leaves to the trees or not at all." If the words keep coming, we owe it to ourselves to hone our axe, to sharpen our perspective and our tools, to make for ourselves the best possible atmosphere for success. But trying to teach someone how to write poetry is like trying to assemble an instruction manual for a sunset.

What the reader of poetry craves are beautiful accidents, surprise and astonishment in the poem, doors opening outward to true vistas for the first time. Something built up from within, not merely extracted from the exterior. The connective tissue is the evanescent need to become part of something that is larger than humans or mere language, but parts of both compressed into radioactive poetry; the right words in the right order, lending light. Sometimes beautiful accidents occur outside the poet's sphere of influence. These accidents enter our writing because of our ability to listen and to be open to the possibilities of any influence. Be one of those people on whom nothing is lost and all will be possible. "I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone," said Rilke.

We are what we read. The freedom of writing allows us to discover what we know, what we're made of, what is possible. The act of writing poetry is the closest thing I've felt to the notion of worship, and a commitment to the release of poetry inside us involves listening in a deeper manner to our own internal echoes and reverberations. We are always gathering sound, even when we are asleep our ears are wide open. So we open the portals and pray for music to hold us aloft. When life encroaches and shakes our confidence, when disappointments pile up, when luck rubs its legs on another, and we've no options, poetry is always what the world wants when its heart is broken. Poetry is what we recite when we marry or bury our loved ones, our highest, most memorable means of cultural expression and remembrance. We use poetry to pledge allegiance to the State. When we see something perfectly executed, it is "poetry in motion," or a dancer lifting into the air, "pure poetry." To have a poem coursing through our body is to be possessed by a rhythm, and though most of our assumptions about the world are proven over and over to be false, the tangible reality of the body in thrall to a song or a poem is almost always true. And the real trick to life, I think, is not to be in the know, but in the mystery. And a human being in love with mystery is never finished.

The ceremony of writing takes place every day, by going constantly to the well. Once, when Jack Nicklaus overheard a fan yell, "Lucky!" after a particularly well-placed shot upon the green, he turned to the gallery and said, "The more I practice, the luckier I get." Thus, there are no famous writers, only famous re-writers, who become professional or published or famous by their force of will upon the words, unwilling to settle for the first thought or effort, and committed to the lifelong process of honing and sharpening their tools. In this respect, the poet can never settle for easy or quick satisfaction. The idea of gratification comes from the surrender to the process where the search, not the arrival, is the thing.

Fear is a choice that occurs when we are not in the moment, when we are fixated on the past or trying to predict the future. But the past and the future do not exist. The only thing that exists when inspiration is present is right now. Regret is also a toxic human construct, corrosive to any ambitious creative endeavor. Like guilt, regret is paralyzing and stops all forward motion. It is scar tissue that freezes the redemptive force of the human imagination inside its previous failures. And all writers fail. A lot. But failure is our friend, it teaches us and constructs, sentence by sentence, how to live inside the voice that is ours and ours alone, the guilt free portal through which we allow a total surrender to the deliverance of our most original ideas and strategies, the channel that fills our lungs with authenticity so we may rise and sing.

Chance favors the prepared mind. The more you practice the luckier you get. If you want to be struck by lightning, cover your golf cart with antennas and drive into the storm. It is not wrong to seek perfection, but perfection doesn't exist and as long as we claim to be seeking perfection, we don't have to finish anything, or publish anything. And as Paul Valery said, "Poems are never finished, but merely abandoned." Perfection is the armor we wear to prevent ourselves from being seen. Life doesn't come with a warning label. You have to participate in your own rescue. We account for our writing lives sometimes by the simple recording of facts, foregoing the catalogue of collisions, assaults, incomplete connections, wandering the dark corridors where memory doesn't light the way. "Sound brings us to our senses," said Thoreau. Poetry is language with a shape, but the page is a cold bed. Poetry has to live in the air.

Every poet can remember the moment when words began to come out of them, when the gush released their deepest emotions, the collapse of held secrets, the blown open vault of their creative impulses at the mercy of their memory and experience. Poetry is the language of hidden things in commerce with one another. Cocteau said, "all poets are mediums and workhands of this force that inhabits them." It is the hunt for the poem that should challenge us, shaping time into orderly forms, though it may seem sometimes like herding fleas into a drinking glass. But poems are non-logical leaps forward that are proven durable by working backward toward known principles. Only the rebellious can do it. And there is a rebel lurking in every successful poet.

The Final Frontier: Honoring the Condensary

Condensation is the final frontier for the poet, after the pulses of the syllables, the break of the lines, the word choices, punctuation and stanza order; what we take away is as important as what we leave. "All art," said Picasso, "is the elimination of the unnecessary." Just as a foggy or repetitive tone can become an emulsion, or a caul over the head of the poem, the beats and arpeggios of breath inside the poem rescue it from monotony by their variance. If you think of each word as a note, then the language is like an enormous piano and wherever it is, the poet has a medium, just as the painter has his variety of colors and the sculptor the physical presence of wood or stone. On the poet's keyboard, each note or word is also a breath inside the reader and refers to or stands for something that is not physically present and that is not itself.

Poems are made of words, not ideas. The ideas come from the combinations of muscular sentences, and the best poems, said Borges "are the right combination of algebra and fire." Words are like atoms. The more pressure we put them under, the more radioactive they become. As space yields to nouns, time and pace are controlled by verbs and their various tenses and energy, and it is valuable to try and replace those verbs that lack heft or dynamism. Being small and learning what to take away is one of the hardest things for a younger poet to practice. One poet whose lifelong commitment to the condensary yielded some of the most beautiful smaller poems in American letters was Lorine Niedecker, whose reputation is still in the process of spreading.

How white the gulls
in grey weather
                 Soon April
                 the little
yellows

Niedecker's commitment to pare away all but the essence of her poems allows each poem to grow into its own identity and power, letting the color nudge up at the end just like small flowers in the underbrush, or the return of chickadees, their little yellow breasts whipping from branch to branch as the weather warms. Niedecker's needs as a poet are simple, and her boundaries firm, but there is a bounty in her discipline.

Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what's got away in my life---
Was enough to carry me thru.

Compose in a flood. Edit in a trickle. Because it is hard to be wise and in love at the same time. Ezra Pound asserted that each line was a minor component of the poem and must be tested for its authority and rightful place. He advocated a line-by-line examination; after the poet is certain that he has accomplished his purpose, he should move to the top of the poem and remove the first line. If the music or meaning of the poem is not altered, then that line has no place and must be deleted. Then the weight of the second line is judged and again, if it does not alter the music or meaning, it has no place. Line by line, the poem is thus trimmed of excess fat, so that its essence is distilled. Theodore Roethke believed that each line must approach the level of a poem itself. My own method is to take copious notes and build poems from the top down. An eighteen-line poem may have begun as a hundred lines or more but is slowly whittled away as the poem reveals its identity. Sometimes several fragments may begin to move toward one another and be judged as family, letting me know that they were the idea I was seeking all along. This way I track the poem among hundreds of ideas word by word. "Ideas in poetry," said Mallarme, "are what we return to when we leave the music as one returns to the comfort of a wife, leaving the mistress we desire." When the poet accepts that nothing he may first compose is sacred, his surrender will allow the poem's true nature to emerge.

A poem should be a long piece of angular hungry momentum tumbling down the page, a flow with authority, admitting no impediments. It is important to acknowledge inspiration's worth here; we have to let our emotions have free reign at the outset, just as there are necessary obstacles that enable one to pause and make changes, to alter and improve the words. To deny the existence of the obstacle or its worth or to give it too much importance, is to empower it or make it sacred. Most writing impediments are either technical problems obstructing the poem's flow, or psychological problems blocking the writer from his recognition of the true impulse. Not the first impulse, mind you; first thought, best thought is a worthless conceit. The best thought may not be the first one available. And a lazy writer is as apparent as a desperate salesman; neither one can close the deal.

If a poem is dynamic, its rhythm headlong, then the tiny turbines of this momentum are the verbs. Action verbs muscle up a sentence and help its propulsion. They may also create unexpected astonishment for the reader. When we believe a poem is finished, we should examine every single verb for a more powerful alternative. Rhythm is the entire movement of the poem, the recurrence of stress and unstressed syllables as they relate to the pitch and texture of the sentences, one against the next. Over the course of several stanzas this momentum would be like a snowball rolling downhill, gaining in size and speed as it picks up more and more lines.

Another method to make the sentence more lively is to turn a noun into a verb, and to relax the use of adjectives. Look at the moment of surprise at the end of Stephen Roberts' poem, entitled "Sex," when the noun maple becomes a verb:

Each love creates
its own final cause.
Crimson, orange,

pink and violet
wisps arch behind
the oak and pine

draped mountain's
distant, unseen slope.
The gray, creaky,

board - warped dock
projects from the reed
rimmed shore into

the spectral lake.
Leaves sink surface
to sediment while

unending, wind
driven waves maple
out into darkness.

You can see the fingers of the waves curling down along the shoreline like the branches of a tree and receding out against the darker surf. The unexpected word maple, turned to a verb, is a moment of quiet surprise that also provides the sentence's motion. The poem turns into itself and then follows the motion of the waves as it releases. It only takes a single verb, cleverly chosen, to set a poem upon, like a balloon balanced on the tip of a pin. See how Lorine Niedecker makes the cold come alive in this tiny poem, animating it by her choice of an unexpected verb that is usually thought of as a noun:

Popcorn-can cover
screwed to the wall
over a hole
        so the cold
can't mouse in

The choice of mouse here in the last line almost makes us see the cold as it sticks its nose into every crevice of the house, searching for a way in. Also, a mouse is insistent, just like the cold, and that aids us in the feeling of the cold as a pervasive foe, not one to be easily deterred. It's a liberating choice, allowing the poem a final motion as well, as the lines find their way inside the reader to slowly nestle and resonate.

All editing is subjective. When we place ourselves in the hands of an editor, no amount of background, biography or back-slapping will help them decide to publish or reject a poem. There is only the poem in front of them, and it is as naked or sophisticated as the day it was born. The decision an editor makes in those moments is as arbitrary as possible, and yet, contains a million other factors, dependent upon his or her mood, the weather, the amount of work, the themes of the issue, conscious and unconscious stylistic bias, their last meal's agreeable digestion, the time that it took to read the mountain of poems in the first place, their children's piano lesson, the lack of a title, the length of the title, the worth of the first line, the color of the paper stock, the unmitigated gall to send a multi-page biography, the fact that it's another damned sonnet, the fact that it's the perfect damn sonnet, the lack of a shower, bravado, pitch, vocabulary, humility, sweep, vision, humor, shape, rhetoric, form, diction. The action of the editor, however quixotic, is riveted with love. Winston Churchill said, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." The best poems stop us in our tracks, shut us up, make us read the poem again and again, because it has suddenly opened another room in our brain that was hidden to us before. I have been submitting my own poetry to other editors for their appraisal since I was eighteen years old and have known from firsthand experience the pain of that rejection letter. So I treat prospective contributors the way I would want to be treated myself, and I hope my process bears the quality of tenderness.


Keith Flynn (www.keithflynn.net) is the award-winning author of eight books, including six collections of poetry: most recently Colony Collapse Disorder (Wings Press, 2013) and The Skin of Meaning (Red Hen Press, 2020), and two collections of essays, entitled The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz and Memory: How To Make Your Poetry Swing (Writer's Digest Books, 2007), and  Prosperity Gospel: Portraits of the Great Recession (RedHawk Publications, 2021).
 
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