I have had a hand in the editing of several poetry journals. Apart from some ephemeral undergraduate publications, there was Poetry New York back in the 1980s, where I helped Burt Kimmelman in an advisory capacity. Then there was Pivot in the 1990s, where I worked with Arthur Mortensen. After that, I functioned as the associate editor of Iambs & Trochees with William Carlson. And of course I now edit TRINACRIA. Incidental details of poetry publishing have changed since 1980, but it’s still essentially the same thing: looking at stuff, and deciding which of it you want to print.
There are two very different approaches to editing a poetry magazine. The more common one is to assume that an editor’s task is to be slavishly loyal to “diversity” and “inclusion,” the two sacred buzzwords of modern liberalism. An editor talking this approach will strive to publish as many different types of poems as possible, to present a sort of rainbow or mosaic of what is currently being produced. In fact, “rainbow” and “mosaic” have become cliché metaphors for this mindset, and they are used frequently by bloviating administrators at college commencement ceremonies, as they stare out upon a sea of multicultural graduates.
The other editorial approach is rigorous and discriminating. The editor following it will choose poems according to how well they suit his taste as a reader, or how closely they achieve the sort of polish and craftsmanship that he expects in a well-made poem. He will want his magazine to show a fairly consistent stylistic face, without jarring or glaring departures from a certain compositional decorum. He will have no problem accepting what he finds aesthetically pleasing, and rejecting what he finds not up to snuff. Journals of this sort tend to get published quickly, as there won’t usually be much editorial debate over what’s good and what’s garbage.
Some journals have thematic restrictions rather than compositional ones, as for example a magazine that only publishes poetry by or about or concerning lesbians, or the disabled, or autistic persons. A niche-market magazine of that sort always has a smaller amount of material to consider. If memory serves, there was once a poetry journal printed out west that only accepted poems dealing with the problems of cattle-raising. Editing it must have been a piece of cake.
In the case of a metrically formal journal, the restrictive approach is even simpler. No poem gets in unless it adheres to a recognizable pattern of rhetorical structure, including sound, scansion, and visual appearance on the page. That becomes the sine qua non for acceptance, the first basic requirement. After that, of course, the poem will be judged on other grounds: style, diction, suitability, wit, intelligence, subject matter, and such-like incidentals. It would make no sense at all for someone to submit langpo or flarf or oulipo to such a journal.
Example: if a poetry magazine specializes in haiku, only a flaming asshole would try submitting an epic or a limerick for consideration. What sort of idiot would have submitted free-verse lyrics to Sparrow, the exclusively sonnet magazine that was run by Felix Stefanile? A haiku is a haiku, and a sonnet is a sonnet.
And yet there exists a vague feeling among many in the poetry world (I refuse to call a visceral response an idea or a conviction) that it is somehow wrong or unkind or cruel or narrow-minded for the editor of a metrically formal journal to exclude free verse or metrically “experimental” verse on principle. There is shock and consternation when an editor says “No, I won’t print that. It isn’t metrical, and therefore it’s not what we want.” Omigod, he’s rejected my hypermetric surrealist sprung-rhythm hybrid pantoum-ghazal, which I worked so hard on in my workshop with all my supportive and caring buddies! And then you will get the usual bitter weeping and wailing about how it’s grossly unfair of the big bad editor to be so exclusionist and unloving and out of tune with the spirit of Santa Claus.
When Arthur Mortensen ran Pivot, along with EP&M On-Line, he occasionally got a communication from someone arguing that it was now time for him to be “fair,” and to publish types of poetry and articles other than the stuff he actually preferred to publish. Art and I used to laugh over these silly demands, as we sat and had our three-martini lunches in Manhattan. Where is it carved in granite that the editor of a poetry journal has to be “fair”? Why would anyone confuse editing a poetry journal with playing cricket? Publishing poetry is like choosing a wife—you’ve got no one to satisfy but yourself and your desires.
Pretty much the same thing happened occasionally when Bill Carlson and I ran Iambs & Trochees. Little clusters of manipulators would gather around Bill and try to sweet-talk him into publishing worthless free verse, or absurdly experimental faux formal work. Sometimes (if they were cute females) they succeeded, but fortunately I managed to prevent the more egregiously half-assed stuff from getting into the magazine. I’d patiently remind Bill that we were a “formal poetry only” journal, and that usually did the trick.
Recently a poet submitted to TRINACRIA two poems that were, in my opinion, very good work, except for the fact that a line in each one departed from the metrical structure of the rest of the poem, spoiling the symmetry. I suggested small changes that would have fixed the problem, and which would have made no difference at all in either poem’s meaning. The poet refused to alter the lines, citing all sorts of irrelevant reasons for not doing so, mostly having to do with the aural reception of the poems if they were read in a certain way. I replied that poems in TRINACRIA were printed on a page, and therefore aural reception and techniques of recitation could not factor into my editorial choices. But to no avail—he refused to fix the poems or submit others in their place, so we ceased our correspondence.
No one blames a haiku journal for rejecting non-haiku. But many people feel free to attack a journal of metrical poetry for claiming the same identity-preserving privilege for itself. Why is this?
Well, when you ask that question you usually get the following dopey answer from liberals: “No one can really say where formal verse ends and free verse begins. There’s no way to separate them out. So the rejection of free verse tout court is unfair and discriminatory!” And then they will give you a song and dance about what an unfeeling and insensitive barbarian you are for even contemplating such an exclusionary approach to art. (Some of these people will even go so far as to say that there is no real distinction between formal and free verse—but those folks are the truly wacky types who think with their glands. Most others are too circumspect to make a hyper-stupid statement like that.)
It’s a pure con game, designed to manipulate an editor into doing something against his basic aesthetic principles. Notice that the con is never tried against editors of free-verse journals who adamantly refuse to print any metrical work at all. They seem to get a free pass. They can be as exclusionist and unloving as they want when it comes to formal poetry. But metrically formal journals… well, they have to be “fair” and “non-discriminatory.” What hypocrisy!
All of this is part of a much larger problem in the Western world, and that is the collapse of definitional precision and clear identity in cultural matters. In the midst of such a collapse, anyone who dares to make the elementary distinction between what is and what is not, or between what is defined and undefined, is perceived as evil, or certainly out of sync with the times. Uncertainty, fog, vagueness, and mixture will be the preferred mode and tone, on the principle that only in this way can we have the best of every approach and style. And in such a situation the editor of a journal that adheres to a fixed line of aesthetic and cultural suppositions, especially if those suppositions are perceived to be traditional, will be vilified and mocked. There is a widespread emotional resistance to the idea of fixed identity, particularly if that identity is unashamedly Western, Christian, and non-perverted.
The dead giveaway about what’s going on here is the palpable sense of outrage in those who inveigh against the “restrictions” of metrically exclusive journals. Consider the facts. There are literally thousands of poetry magazines being published in the Anglophone world. Any poet writing in whatever mode he likes can surely find a hard-copy or virtual place that is suitable for his work. We are drowning in a sea of stupid, shitty, ephemeral little publication venues that can provide line space for just about everyone. If this is so, why the rage against a formal poetry journal for simply being itself? Why the anger and resentment?
The answer is simple. The rage is directed against the very idea of a distinct and discrete Western cultural identity. Supporting and celebrating such an identity is lèse majesté to the left-liberal scum who dominate the official cultural, media, and academic organs of our society. Multiculturalism is their religion, and their policy. A monocultural Western voice threatens that hegemony, and in their view it must be silenced or discredited at all costs. For this reason, the simple act of publishing and maintaining the identity of a strictly formal poetry magazine is now a type of political resistance to the West’s cultural debasement. It is a massive raised middle finger to the liberal vermin who presume to tell us how to live and what to think. As the French say, Va te faire foutre! The finger may not change anything politically, but it lets our enemy overlords know that we hold them in contempt, and we’re not afraid to say so.
I’m glad that more and more Westerners are raising that middle finger high.