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For Singular Consideration

Interview with Open Letters Monthly’s New Poetry Editor, Maureen Thorson

Maureen, welcome to Open Letters Monthly. OLM is not your first stint as a poetry editor. From 2006-2008 you ran Big Game Books, “the tiniest poetry press in the world.” Could you tell us a little about that experience and how it will inform being the OLM Poetry Editor?

Big Game let me learn some of the ins and outs of editing in a controlled environment. Rather than publishing a magazine or individual poets’ books, Big Game issued short-run chapbooks and “tinysides,” – six-page pamphlets, each featuring a single poet’s work. This type of publishing does not require the curatorial presentation necessary when many poems are appearing together, whether by different poets, as in a journal, or one poet, as in a book. Rather, it rewards focus: a single poem, a single poet, is held up for consideration. OLM, which publishes one poem a month, also privileges this focus and singular consideration.

Big Game Books published fifty tinysides, three “mediumsides,” and five chapbooks in its brief three years. I used the editing process as a means of keeping my ears and eyes open when it comes to contemporary poetry, and both deepened and broadened my connections in Poetry Land. I will be calling on some of those connections in editing OLM; I also hope that OLM will become a showcase for poems representing a diversity of styles, established poets as well as newcomers, and that it will introduce readers to poems and poets they might not otherwise have seen or considered.

I also hope that the many friends and acquaintances I made through the process of editing Big Game Books will be of use in increasing the number of reviews of contemporary poetry to appear in OLM. Many poets write reviews; in fact, it’s a bit of a rite of passage, and I would like to draw on that waiting bevy of poets to make OLM one of the top sites on the internet for in-depth, sensitive treatments of new poetry collections.

Recently you went on a week-long tour of the deep South to promote your first full-length book of poems, Applies to Oranges. How was that?

Shanna Compton, the gracious editor of Bloof Books, allowed me to tag along on Bloof’s fall tour this year. I have a day job that does not lend itself to touring, so this was a really exciting opportunity for me. We started in Birmingham, Alabama, and wound our way through Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Kansas. I got to know many new poets, and am excited to solicit both poems and reviews from them.

The tour reminded me of how vibrant poetry in the United States is: poets have collectively been bemoaning the death of poetry for more than fifty years, but people are still writing, they are still reading, they are going to readings and thinking deeply about poems. And poets, for all the drama that artistic temperaments are supposed to generate, are for the most part extremely supportive of one another. They can be true to their own tastes while being tolerant of others’, of allowing many different styles to grow simultaneously.

In 2003 you married the ideas behind National Novel Writing Month and the fact that April is National Poetry Month to create National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), in which you challenged yourself and others to write a poem a day in the month of April. How has NaPoWriMo helped you over the past nine years, both in terms of your writing and engaging with other poets?

I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator when it comes to writing. I find it much easier to write if I have a project of some kind, rather than following the simple yet vague directive of writing whenever inspiration strikes. I enjoy the stability of rules, and writing one poem a day for a month seemed to be just the right kind of rule: inflexible in terms of how much output, but very flexible in terms of what kind of output.

The first year, 2003, I might have been the only person doing it but the next year, after moving to New York and actually meeting some other poets, some of those poets joined me. It’s grown every year since then. In 2011, more than 700 people signed up to participate through napowrimo.net, and I know there are many other people who participate through other, similar sites, or who take up the challenge independently. It’s extremely decentralized; I’ve never attempted to turn NaPoWriMo into a unitary, “take-it-or-leave-it” proposition, or to make any money off of it. I’m just happy knowing that so many people have found the idea useful and worthwhile.

While it might seem like it would be of the greatest use to “newbie” poets, many established poets have used NaPoWriMo to jump-start their own work. In fact, there are a number of books out there right now containing poems written entirely or in part during NaPoWriMo. Some of them mention NaPoWriMo explicitly in their acknowledgements; I’ve learned about NaPoWriMo’s influence in the creation of others from informal discussions with their authors.

NaPoWriMo will be back for its ninth year in 2012; I’ve just started getting the site ready. Sign-ups will start in March, at napowrimo.net, and writing prompts will be available through the month to assist those with inspirational deficits put pen to paper (or fingertip to key, as the case may be).

You’ve been a co-curator of In Your Ear, a monthly poetry reading series in Washington, DC for the past four years. What is the aim of the series, and will it inform your work with OLM?

The In Your Ear series has been held monthly, September – May (and recently through June) at the DC Arts Center, since the early 1990s. I stepped up as a co-curator four years ago, working with Cathy Eisenhower. Since then, Cathy has resigned her well-worn curatorial hat in favor of Buck Downs, one of the founding curators, now back in the saddle after many years.

We aim to have one or two out-of-town poets, alongside a DC area poet, at each reading. DC has a very strong poetry community, as evidenced by the fact that In Your Ear has been going strong for twenty years. Featuring local poets nurtures that community, and also draws in audience members to hear our out-of-town readers. The balance between local and out of town poets also helps create connections between poets in DC and those elsewhere.

Running a series has helped me to create and maintain connections that would not have been possible otherwise, especially since Big Game Books went on hiatus. It helps me to meet both established and newly-publishing poets with a wide variety of influences, styles, and aesthetic concerns, and I think the experience will be invaluable for generating both poems and reviews for OLM, and in ensuring that OLM’s offerings reflect the full cross-section of trends and advances in contemporary poetry.

Can you tell us anything about this month’s poem, Look Down by Jordan Davis?

One of my favorite aspects of the poem is its “visuals” – it inspires very concrete cityscapes in my mind, so that I feel as though I am moving through the city, horizontally and vertically, as I read. This sense of specific scenes and movement reinforces the mental or emotional distances that the poem bridges and contemplates. At its most basic level, the poem takes us through New York – on a subway ride, along the street, to the top of a skyscraper and back down, to Grand Central Station, giving us a commuter’s or pedestrian’s observations during such a journey. More deeply, it addresses the feeling that one is apart even in a crowd, that the crowd operates on this insistence that each person inside of it is separate, focused on his or her individual concerns, and that to do otherwise would result in a kind of spiritual vertigo. The poem also, however, finds room for connection or the possibility of connection despite this anomie – in individual speech and in the larger narrative of the crowd, “the song/that lasts sixty years/or seventy”.

Any surprises in store for us at OLM?

First, I’m confident that starting in February OLM can publish at least one long-form review of a new book of poetry every month, and that we can develop a strong group of core reviewers. I’d like to publish appreciations of older books as well, particularly as viewed by young poets. NPR has a segment recently wherein classic albums, like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” for example, were reviewed by the NPR interns – people under the age of 25, who had never previously heard of Joni Mitchell, and whose minds are blown away by the experience. Now, it’s probably too much to ask to find a young poet who has never heard of, say, Marianne Moore, but there are very likely many young poets who have never read much of certain poets. I myself am fairly poorly versed (duh-DUMP-duh) in some works/poets others consider seminal, and I think these types of essays can be educational and amusing for reviewer and reader alike.

I’d also like to publish “think-pieces” about trends in contemporary poetry. How is poetry in translation being accepted and promoted in the United States? How are different poetry communities (whether bound by cities, states, politics, etc.) interacting? I think there is plenty of room out there for useful, entertaining engagement with issues confronting poets and their public(s) beyond rehashes of “avant-garde” vs. “whatever isn’t avant-garde.”

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