PERUSING THE INBOX: IN SEARCH OF A TAR RIVER POETRY POEM
1. In the 1964 United States Supreme Court obscenity case Jacobellis vs. Ohio, Justice Potter Stuart declared that he was incapable of “intelligibly” defining hard-core pornography. “But,” Potter famously continued, “I know it when I see it.”
2. Some time ago the editor of Tar River Poetry began to understand that when it comes to poetry, at least the poetry he was in daily contact with in the course of his editorial duties, he could not “intelligibly” define much of anything at all.
3. This is not to equate poetry with pornography (although there may be some interesting similarities. Discuss).
4. The editor has been editing Tar River Poetry for the past decade (since 2006). In those ten years, he has read an obscene amount of submitted poetry—something like 30,000 separate poems.
5. “In the destructive element, immerse.” —Conrad.
6. Out of those 30,000, in 20 issues of TRP, the editor has published around 800 poems—fewer than 3%.
7. So. During his first few years at TRP the editor labored over each poetry submission, weighing trite phrases against fresh language, truth against pablum, originality against predictability, trying to apply criteria gleaned from a lifetime of reading, from poetry workshops and literature classes, from other poets living and dead, from his own self-education as a poet. He had somehow acquired the idea that his job was to determine whether a poem was Good, Mediocre, or Bad. He was an editor now, for God’s sake; he was a Guardian at the Gates of Poetry.
8. But after making such determinations on several thousand poems he began to understand that “gatekeeper” was not in the job description. Is it a good poem, or a bad poem? was the wrong question. The right question was this: Is it a Tar River Poetry poem?
9. The editor explains all this at a writers’ conference. In the audience he sees people nodding, smiling: Is it a Tar River Poetry poem? Then someone asks the next, inevitable question: So what is a Tar River Poetry poem? Stupidly the editor is taken by surprise; it was not a question he was expecting. He struggles for a few minutes, trying to narrow it down to this thing or that thing. He ends up shrugging and laughing. He hasn’t the slightest idea.
10. The editorial staff members at most journals are smart and discerning people, passionate about writing, probably writers themselves. They split up the submissions, take them home, read them, meet a few days later, a week later, two weeks later, pass around the manuscripts to the other editors, discuss, wonder whether poetry is like pornography, discuss some more, disperse, meet again a a few days later, a week later, two weeks later, keep passing submissions around, advocate for or inveigh against a particular submission, meet again the next week, vote, hold a recount, vote again, and then perhaps pass the submission up to the main editor, who holds on to it, reads it when she has time, thinks about it for a few days, a week, two weeks, and then maybe hedges her bet by holding it even longer to wait and see whether something better will come in before the print deadline.
11. The editor is thinking about all this at the writers’ conference, in the men’s room at the convention center. He looks at himself in the mirror and says, in his best public-speaking voice, “That’s not how we do it at Tar River Poetry.”
12. Strictly speaking, the “we” in the sentence above is a lie. “We” is automatic, thoughtless, editorial posturing. It’s force of habit. There is no “we” reading submissions at Tar River Poetry. There’s just the editor.
13. At TRP there is a student helper who gets three hours of course credit for formatting accepted poems, processing subscriptions, updating the journal’s Facebook page, Tweeting. TRP has two of the best proofreaders anywhere, who scour each issue the week before each issue goes to press. The editor has a trusted former intern living out of state who does a preliminary read on most of the non-subscriber submissions. But that’s it. “We don’t edit by committee,” the editor says to the bathroom mirror. Tar River Poetry is almost entirely the product of one person’s poetic tastes. The editor’s.
14. With one exception. For 19 years, 1976 to 2005, TRP was brilliantly edited by one of the editor’s teachers and mentors, Peter Makuck, and in one particular instance it still is. When a submitted poem has stymied the editor, when he’s torn, on the fence, he finally remembers to ask himself, Would Peter run this poem? And then he knows what to do.
15. Standing in the convention center men’s room the editor is mentally revising his previous answer, feeling his way in no particular order toward articulating some prejudices, some preferences, some things that dismay him and some that still excite him every time he opens the Submittable inbox.
16. Every single blessed morning when he opens that inbox he says out loud, “Let’s see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days.”
17. “. . . and buy an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days” —Frank O’Hara.
18. A preference: Animal poems. The editor is not an “animal person.” Cats, dogs, horses, snakes, cows, he doesn’t care. But for some reason he likes poems about animals.
19. See the sample poems at tarriverpoetry.com, specifically, Claudia Emerson’s poem “Animal Funerals, 1964,” and Jack Granath’s poem “Ambush.”
20. A prejudice: Birds. Bird poems do not count as animal poems. TRP has published so many dozens of bird poems in the history of the journal that any bird poem has to be extraordinary to overcome the editor’s prejudice; it actually has to be about something other than a bird, while being ostensibly about a bird. Whenever he meets a poet, say for example standing around the hotel bar at a writers’ conference or in the men’s room of a convention center, the fourth or fifth question he always asks will be, Hey, why do poets always write about birds?
21. “Ode to a Nightingale.” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” “Hurt Hawks.” “The Windhover.” “The Raven.” “To a Waterfowl.” “To a Skylark.” “Leda and the Swan.” “The Darkling Thrush.” Etc, etc.
22. So here is another thing: Tar River Poetry is a print journal with no endowment, no wealthy donors, no public funding, no grant money. The editor frets, watching the subscription base dwindle, watching the journal bleed out. His intern observes that everyone reads on screens nowadays. “We are ink and paper people,” the editor writes to contributors and potential subscribers, hoping they are in the same tribe; “we can’t help it.”
23. If you subscribe, here’s the deal, he says: expedited editorial decisions. We’ll read your submission and get back to you within one week.
24. One week! It might kill me, he thinks, but it might save the journal.
25. In the first 24 hours of the next reading period there are seventeen new subscribers. Each has sent five poems, the maximum allowed. The editor does the math: eighty-five poems.
26. “Let’s see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days.”
27. You wouldn’t believe how fast it is. It would make you weep, to see the editor go through that respond-within-one-week inbox. He starts out intending to read every word. After a half-dozen lines, sometimes sooner, he knows This is not a TRP poem, although he does not necessarily know why. He keeps reading to make sure. He reads the end. He jumps to the next poem. Not bad, not good, just not right for TRP. One minute and thirty seconds, two minutes, two-and-a-half minutes, he’s done. From the Submittable drop-down menu he clicks on “Declined.”
28. The editor opens the inbox and reads five poems in a row about the poet—her observations, her insights, her bits of wisdom. Ego, ego, ego, ego, ego. The editor clicks “Decline.” He opens the next batch of five, from a poet he knows personally. The poems chart the journey of the poet’s ego moving through various landscapes. The poems say Look at me in the fjords of Norway! the mean streets of Madrid! the jungles of Cambodia! Look at my big fat ego, the editor thinks, clicking “Decline.” The editor would like to read a poem that renders the jungles of Cambodia unfiltered by ego. He thinks of Keats’s negative capability, Eliot’s dictum of impersonality.
29. In no particular order: some of the editor’s other prejudices, things he does not like to see: Sestinas.* Poems that make excessive use of Greek or Norse mythology. Poems in which the speaker declares she or he is some inanimate object* (“I am the flame.”) (No you’re not.) Poems which are addressed directly to a “you.”* Poems in which the title is repeated in the last line.* Poems that transform homeless people, minorities, rednecks, children, etc. into tropes in order to make a point about the poet’s politics.* Smart-ass poems.* Shock the bourgeoisie poems.* Poems designed to show that the poet is cooler than you are because he has cooler taste in music. Poems about fishing,* poems about menstruation, poems about poetry that masquerade as poems about fishing or menstruation. Poems about paintings.* Poems driven by ego.* These poems arrive to the inbox with one strike against them already, so they are all the more excellent when very occasionally the editor returns to them and rereads them, just to make sure he is not being overly bigoted, and on second look they overcome his initial impression, his resistance, his prejudice, and from the drop-down menu, he labels them “Accepted.”
30. In the preceding paragraph each type of poem marked with an asterisk is a type of poem the editor has written, himself.
31. The truth is that he doesn’t care if TRP ever publishes another poem about a painting, ever, in his lifetime.
32. “About suffering they were never wrong / the Old Masters….” —Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” the best painting poem ever written, in the editor’s opinion.
33. Poems that make the editor laugh score extra points. But it’s even harder to explain what makes him laugh than it is to explain what a TRP poem is.
34. The editor likes a poem that is different from the poems he usually reads. Thus he is drawn to poems written in stanzas, because 90% of the poems submitted to TRP seem to be vomited out with no apparent regard for shape, structure, or pattern.
35. The editor opens the inbox and reads some poems that have exploded all over the page, in imitation perhaps of E.E. Cummings. He reads some poems that are pared down to one syllable per line, in imitation perhaps of whoever. He reads some poems that frankly don’t make any sense to him. Maybe he’s stupid. Or maybe he’s just sleepy.
36. If the editor is sleepy, exhausted, really unable to focus, that turns out to be a good time to read the inbox. All the poems blur together into a big indistinguishable lump. He reads for an hour and nothing happens. Then with eyes half-open he clicks to a poem that begins with a voice so arresting that the editor feels a sudden rush of adrenaline. This is one way he might recognize a TRP poem.
37. That’s not facetious. When you receive 1,573 poems in 28 days, you are looking to be jolted awake.
38. Before Submittable, in the days of printed rejection slips and snail mail, TRP heard regularly from The Naked Poet. Her hardcopy manuscripts included in their margins several postage-stamp-sized color self-portraits (at least the editor assumed they were self-portraits), nude, artfully cropped so you never saw her face. The portraits were interesting, attractive, mysterious, intriguing, but the poems were not TRP poems.
39. Nor does the editor care, at all, what is in someone’s cover letter.
40. The editor usually reads the cover letter last. If at all. He marks a batch of poems as “Declined” and then he reads the cover letter and sees that this poet has published X number of books and won Y number of awards and the editor thinks Did I make a mistake here? and so he rereads the submission and no, he did not make a mistake. These poems might be bad poems, or these poems might be good poems, and perhaps he really doesn’t know the difference, but what he does know is this: they are not Tar River Poetry poems.
41. Maybe the bottom line is this, the editor thinks: if there one single quality that I associate with a TRP poem, it is intelligibility. A TRP poem must make sense.
42. On the first reading it must make some kind of sense. Beyond that, it must bring something else to the table: aesthetic enjoyment, perhaps, or voice, or a striking bit of figurative language or a crystalized moment or a few overheard words or something honest wrenched from the human heart, but first, it has to make sense.
43. Otherwise, “Declined.”
44. But if there is something there, if it’s not only intelligible but there’s also a glimmer, a phrase, something right there, in the third line, at the start of the second stanza, something in the syntax of the opening, a feeling expressed with precision, a memorable ending—something that says, Read this again—then the editor will pull out the other label from the drop-down menu: “Maybe.”
45. “Maybe” means come back and read it again, when things are calmer. “Maybe” means “worth a second read.” “Maybe” is the tag the editor hangs on a submission when there is even the slightest flicker of a TRP poem, a spark of poetic recognition.
46. “So maybe, in the end,” the editor tells the bathroom mirror, “the only thing I can say for sure about what makes a Tar River Poetry poem is that I know it when I see it.”
47. Just like pornography.
Luke Whisnant is the editor of Tar River Poetry, and the author of the novel Watching TV with the Red Chinese, the story collection Down in the Flood, and two poetry chapbooks, Street and Above Floodstage: a narrative poem.
This essay was originally published in the fall 2016 issue of The Shining Rock Poetry Anthology & Book Review and is reprinted with their kind permission.