Last week, during Banned Books Week, some friends and I were talking about the way Margaret Atwood’s frequently challenged novel The Handmaid’s Tale can teach would-be writers and even practiced storytellers how to get this fiction thing right: how the novel as a form is more pliable than we realize and how language, even individual words, can direct the plot, build character. Writers like Atwood give us new tricks to stuff up our sleeves, and they encourage us to generate our own literary legerdemain. [See Joe Fassler’s essay, “Write Like the Handmaid,” for The Atlantic online.]
This week, at IHLR, we’ve opened the submission gate to our annual NaPoMo issue. In 2008, when we began dedicating no. 2 in every volume of Iron Horse to the celebration of poetry and National Poetry Month, I was a little nervous. I’m a prose writer, no way around it, and so the task of filling an entire issue with magnificent poems was daunting. But every year, our NaPoMo issue gives me the opportunity to solicit work from one or two of my favorite writers—Bob Hicok, Camille Dungy, Nicky Beer, Ted Kooser. More importantly, our poetry editor, Carrie Jerrell, uses the issue to introduce me to new poets I wouldn’t know otherwise. She spends a great deal of time reading other journals and collections throughout the year, then invites the poets she admires to submit work. And of course, our submitters also send us their best efforts, and so we ultimately fill the majority of the issue with poems that stun us because we never saw them coming. Some poets I’m watching now because of our past NaPoMo issues include Lisa Fay Coutley, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, Shaindel Beers, and Katie Peterson (all of whom appeared in IHLR 15.2).
Here's the best part about our NaPoMo issue, for me at least, being all selfish and such: the trends in contemporary poetry I’ve encountered there have reminded me what writers can accomplish when they start playing with the tradition of literature—in any of its various guises. The flare-up of self-portrait poems five years ago reminded me that metaphor is a beautiful, flexible, complex way to establish character. [See Mary Szybist’s “Self-Portrait with a Bee in My Mouth,” or Casey Thayer's "Self-Portrait as Cattle Brand," which appeared in IHLR 14.2.] Carrie even acknowledged the form as a great writing prompt in the Foreword to our 2010 NaPoMo issue (12.2). The debate over and vs. ampersands nearly three years ago reminded me that specificity of word choice means every last word, even those conjunctions that are always so underfoot we forget we’re standing on them. In IHLR 9.1, Cecily Parks’s two epistolary poems—“Letter to the Pistolsmith” and “Letter to the Stream Warden”—made me wish, and wish hard, that epistolary poems would become the hot new thing—because Parks showed me that a single, quick letter, rather than an entire novel chockfull of them, could tell a world of a story all by itself. She reminded me about the leverage of brevity.
So, here I am talking about poems in terms of the way they teach me to re-vision prose. I even started off this blog post—a call for poetry submissions—by talking about Atwood, a novelist. I can’t help my own obsessions.
Still, I owe poets a big thank you. Every year when we open the gates to NaPoMo, they fill me with wonder again--and they do so just when my writing, after a summer of going hard at it, is looking and feeling bone-tired, drained, dead asleep even. In my opinion, when a poet fills my study with new light, when he or she gets me thinking about art again, new methods of getting “there,” then the poem is working some serious magic. I can’t think of anything better.
As Marianne Moore says in “Poetry,” poems, for all their fiddle, land us amidst the genuine power of this world. Poems are the "hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise." They depict imaginary gardens alive with real toads. So, we're calling upon all poets and even those prose writers brave enough to step into a world not their own: send us some poetic gems. I mean it when I say we’re blessed that we have the opportunity to read them.
For now, until we release the NaPoMo issue in April, here are some more poets on poetry. There’s lot of wisdom here--
"kidnap poem," by Nikki Giovanni
"The Poem Wants a Drink," by Karen Glenn
"This Poem Is Asking for Help," by Rhett Iseman Trull
"Oatmeal," by Galway Kinnell
"A Loaf of Poetry," by Naoshi Koriyama
"Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry," by Howard Nemerov
"?Poetry," by Pablo Neruda
"Five Poems about Poetry," by George Oppen
"Entrances and Exits," by Mary Szybist
--Leslie Jill Patterson, Editor