Last year I was asked, along with 13 other small press editors, if I would like to contribute an essay to the 20th anniversary issue of The Café Review, which was scheduled to appear the beginning of 2009. I was honored and, since it was also the 20th anniversary year of Lilliput Review, it seemed a good time to take a look at what I had done, was doing, and hoped to continue to do for some bit longer. The parameters were specific enough to be interesting to the reader and broad enough to give an expansive horizon to the writer. Basically, the question to be addressed was how you, the editor, choose the poetry you select and why. Also, speak to the current state of American poetry, which I felt distinctly unqualified to address, so I chose to speak to the state of poetry itself, perpetually, as I experience it and how that affects my approach to selecting work for Lilliput. Since The Café Review's latest issue is just out, I thought I'd share the essay, which appeared in their Spring 2009 issue.
- -Resonance & Revelation - The Café Review Essay
- -Resonance & Revelation - The Café Review Essay
Poetry, in its creation as well as its appreciation, is first and
foremost visceral. It is almost precognitive: the moment of
seeing, close-up and in the wild, a peregrine falcon, or a pair
of mating garter snakes, or a painting before intellectualization
It is revelation.
Even though this is the single most important part of the
process, involving something beyond words, what follows is
almost as important: taking in the falcon, the snakes, the
Klimt, processing the images, the intent, and the resonance.
For these reasons, rarely do I accept or reject any poem on
first reading. Every poem is carefully considered two, three,
four times, and ones that spark a lyrical quandary are often
read many, many more.
Above my desk there is a note: “Clarity and resonance, not
necessarily in that order” and when I am queried about
what I look for in a poem, I pass this statement on (it has
been part of the entry for Lilliput Review in the Poet’s
Market for most of Lillie’s 20 year run). If you equate this
statement to the process described above, I’d have to admit
that it would be missing that single most important element.
In my mind, without revelation there is no poetry. Clarity
is specific to execution, but it also applies to vision, and so
we are back to the visceral and how it might best be
described. And really it is beyond description. Perhaps there
can be an approximation. There is, however, no definitive
answer or this selection of essays would be unnecessary.
One would have sufficed.
All great poetry mirrors life, in its entirety or in some aspect.
There is no definitive answer concerning life because, if there
was one, all the different religions, like these essays, would
be unnecessary. Good poetry rarely posits an answer: it is a
restating of the question. Good poems are a constant
rephrasing of the one unanswerable question. Ah, theory,
theory! But how is it done, how are poems selected, what
makes a poem worth including in Lilliput Review?
Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry provides a glimmer of
an answer. “If I read a book of poetry and it makes my whole
body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.
If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I
know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is
there any other way? ”
This certainly is what I have in mind when I speak of
revelation and, frankly, this is no theory.
Lillie is a magazine of the short poem. It is diminutive in size
by design, for a number reasons, but suffice it to say that
form reflects content. Guidelines ask for 3 poems, with a
maximum of ten lines each. These are the only rules. If
somebody has a 10 line sonnet, I’m ready. I receive nearly
a thousand batches of poems and publish on average 8
issues a year, generally 16 pages in length. On average,
there are 2 poems per page, occasionally one or three. I
use artwork so that reduces the page number to 13.
That’s 26 poems per issue, approximately 200 poems
per year out of a pot of 3,000.
Now comes the tricky part; Lillie is a one person operation
and has been for 20 years. So, really, how are the poems
chosen? Well, aside from what is noted above (and if my
colleagues are honest, they know the following to be true),
work is chosen that I personally like. In fact, I can look
back over the full run and see something of a mirror,
reflecting a body of selected work. It isn’t a poet’s
complete poems, but it is something like that. It is
something like a personal journal, a written artifact of a
life’s journey. In all its honesty, foolishness, pettiness,
courage … the full gambit of humanness. Folks often
comment on how issues seem themed but nothing is
pre-planned, though sometimes an issue taps into
something (insert “z” word here). Putting together an
issue is actually a creative act; this is where it all comes
together and this almost singly makes the endless hours
of detail work worth every single second.
So, er, what do you like, Don?
Well, I have a dedication to the short poem. In tone and
flavor, I’d say I have an Eastern predilection. I like
clarity, plain speaking, but I also like something that
resonates, and not necessarily etc., something that
suggests the many realms of possibility. I love Dickinson,
Whitman, Ginsberg, Olds, Issa, Oliver, Shakespeare,
Yosano Akiko, Franz and James Wright, Sexton … I could
go on, but you get the idea.
An example of the perfect Lilliput poem might be The
Jewel by James Wright. It does everything I’ve described
above and much more. Here’s a poem from a very early
issue of Lillie that is emblematic of the kind of work I look
in a fold of
This poem, comprised of 8 simple words in 3 truncated
lines, says it all. What really is going on? Is it a Balzac
statue or an imagined episode in his life? It seems to
contain all the stories Balzac ever wrote and writer’s
block wasn’t an issue. There is something ominous,
possibly. Or it’s simply a naturalistic expression of an
imagined or seen event.
And it resonates like hell.
And that is precisely the point. It is all those things,
drawing the reader in and forcing her to participate
in the creation. It is the perfect melding of Eastern
sensibility and Western mind.
And, oh, did I mention – it’s under 10 lines.
This week's selection from the Back Issue Archive arrives at #10, from February 1990. Here's two poems from that issue that still retain their sting. Enjoy.
Status QuoMy father, the stone,
rests in my heart
awaiting his completion
with a dry persistence.
I let him wait.
As all stones must,
he is learning patience.Albert Huffstickler
Do you ask for mercy?
You will be given a toad
and a bucket of salt,
and nothing more.
Do not ask for more.
There is none.
from beneath a stone
translated by David G. Lanoue