Monday, December 16, 2013

Reflections of Enigma the poetry of Melanie Whithaus Part 2: Poets and the importance of the literary magazine.

Available HERE
On my first day of graduate school, I could hardly contain my excitement. It was a cold Vermont January. The Goddard College campus was not only very far away from my home of Denver, Colorado, but it was nearly foreign when compared to my daily existence. And the wildest part of all, that first day, I checked into a dormitory room. It was the first dorm I ever used. And my first roommate was already there. “Hello,” he said. “Hi,” I answered. “What's your focus?” he asked. “Focus?” I repeated. “Yes,” he said. “What do you write?” “Oh,” I said. “Fiction.” “I'm sorry,” he said. “What?” I asked. “My condolences,” he said. “What's your focus?” I asked. “Poetry,” he said. I recall the conversation here in exact clarity, this was the only conversation I had with that particular roommate. He and I did not room together after that first semester. Sadly, this conversation became the embodiment of poets for me.

I had been to poetry readings. In the early 1990s I went to the poetry slams that happened in the darkened late-night coffeehouses that skirted my neighborhood. The poets there were edgy, I thought, dark maybe. There was a black T-shirted guy at the Mercury Cafe one night who single-handedly ended my curiosity about poets, poetry readings and “the scene.” He stood at the mike and took a long pull from his cigarette and reflectively leaned in: “This poem is about yuppies and why I hate them!” he began. It's been well over 20 years since that night and I still remember that line.

But these are only two poets. And I've only explained two experiences. I still read poetry: Baudelaire, Longfellow and Rosetti are on my nightstand. So is Melanie Whithaus's book Enigma. There has never been much of a shift, not for me. I read Elizabeth Bishop in bath a few years back and I read Langston Hughes over the few days before my son was born. I've always gotten something from my reading of poetry. It makes me think differently about images and it makes me feel differently about words. I know that poetry is important. Do you?

At the onset of Umbrella Factory Magazine, Mark Dragotta and Janice Hampton and I talked in pairs or all three about the magazine's concept. We talked about what a magazine should be. We talked about expansive growth, possibilities and taking over the world. Our conversations never left the world of prose: fiction and nonfiction. I think it was Mark who, almost as an afterthought said, “what about poetry?” Blank stares. What about it? None of us knew the first thing about it. Partly because it was not our background and partly because it was not of interest to us, poetry and its place in UFM was now subject for debate.

And really, there was no debate. We found a poet who started with us. His work was invaluable to the formation of the magazine and our role in the system of literary magazines. When our first poet left, he went to become the head editor of another magazine. And Julie Ewald, our current poet and poetry editor has been with us since issue 3, and her influence has shaped not only my impression but the flavor of our magazine. In the 16 issues of Umbrella Factory Magazine there has always been room, and plenty of it, for poetry and for poets.

For a moment, it's probably prudent to break down both sides: the poet and the literary magazine.

The poet has more work to do than the “why I hate yuppies” guy. Sure, there is the raw emotion, the truly uncensored heart of the artist that fits into the strophes and staffs and stanzas. I suspect this is only a small portion of the work that's done. Yeah, reading at the open mike night, or an organized poetry event is part of it too. The readings must be rehearsed. I know in early days of UFM when we hosted readings, many of the poets who read were very polished, professional, well spoken (even when reading). The work of a poet may well start with the raw energy of “yuppies and why I hate them” but this cannot be where it ends. A successful poet is one who reads poetry incessantly. A successful poet is one who labors over a piece, a stanza, a line or a word. A successful poet probably will not begin a poem with “yuppies and why I hate them.”

What becomes of a poem? The way I see it, the poet has three options for a single poem. First, the poet gets involved in the reading circuit. In this regard, the poem will get a revision during every read which means that the poem then becomes fluid. Second, the poet can take a handful of poems and assemble them into a larger project called a chapbook which I discussed last week. And third, the poet gets involved in the literary magazine circuit.

Literary Magazines are not altruistic affairs.

Let me tell you who I think the market is for literary magazines. I think the sole market for literary magazines are for the writers and poets who submit to them. Oftentimes, I wonder if these writers and poets even read the magazines they submit to. And if there is a reader who is not a writer or poet, this reader is related to the writer or poet who contributes to the magazine.

So why do it? Why have a magazine? Well, I'd think that most magazine founders, not unlike us, believe that they are doing something different, revolutionary and important. Of course, there is a selfish side to it. When you work a magazine, you work a magazine. It's great for the CV, networking and meeting other editors and other magazines. It's a great place to meet other writers and poets. It's what we do. It's a vehicle to get a wider audience for both the magazine itself and the writers and poets within it.

It all begins with the literary magazines. This is the place where writers and poets get started. Smaller journals, especially the independent magazines, make the evolution of literature possible. Without the work done by writers and poets and distributed by the literary magazine, what we read, I believe, would all become corporate template literature. And that's not literature at all.

Next: Part 3 :Enigma, a review.

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