Deborah Ager talked with 32 Poems editor John Poch about what he looks for in a poem, the process of writing poems, and the places where he’s had the most trouble getting his own work published.
DA: In writer bios, we often get lists of awards, books, and other publications. Rarely do I read what inspired a writer to pick up a pen and attempt to write a poem. What do you remember about what compelled you to write? When did you start writing?
JP: Awards mean little, but it feels good to get one now and then. It can be encouraging. But when they are not forthcoming, a writer still writes. I was studying nuclear engineering at Georgia Tech. In short, I was unhappy, and I knew that writing (and reading) made me intensely happy, so I ignorantly set out for the territories. I am still ignorantly plodding my way along, perhaps a little smarter through making mistakes and occasionally doing something right.
DA: In “Backwards,” the speaker thinks of Chernobyl and asks, “In their dreams, is the glow out there like embers/on the bed of a dead fire?” How did this poem come into being?
JP: I read an article about those who still live in the villages closest to Chernobyl and how they dealt with some of the fallout and how they tried to continue to live where they had always lived. It was quite horrific, knowing a thing or two about nuclear energy and the lumped burnable poisons that come along with it. That, combined with the fact that my friend´s dog was chewing up our couch like there was no tomorrow became the beginning of the poem. I wrote it while a grad student at Florida, but I was never happy with it, and I finally found a way (I think) to make it work just a few years ago. So the poem really took over 10 years to write.
DA: Over the seven years we’ve worked together on 32 Poems, I’ve noticed your love for the sonnet. What do you like about this particular form? What about the form challenges you? Lastly, what do you dislike about the form?
JP: To continue with the engineering theme, I truly believe I love the math of it. The 8\6 or 4\4\4\2 of it and all the patterns nestled in between. When a poet is able to map language and ideas into and out of this patterning, excellent things can happen. Now, I get a lot of really awful sonnets, as well, and I don’t take those. I get competent ones, and I don’t take those. I take the excellent ones, and there is something about the form that allows for excellence. There aren’t many excellent villanelles, or pantoums, or ghazals, I feel. But the sonnet, there are hundreds. I could probably write an essay about what makes them tick, but I will just leave it at that.
DA: This past month, I’ve been re-reading Edna St. VIncent Millay’s sonnets. In the collection I’m reading of her work, J.D. McClatchy points out that Millay was nearly forgotten for several decades. At one point, Edmund Wilson claimed she was one of our best poets. What are your thoughts on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets? Secondly, what are your thoughts on poets who will last into the next century?
JP: I’ve read a lot of her poems. She has some good ones, some fine ones, but most of them, I don’t think they are powerful. Not in the way that Shakespeare’s work, or Spencer, or even Cummings, is powerful. I’m in Spain, right now, so I don’t have my Millay at hand, but I remember that I found them more abstract than I liked. Shakespeare’s are abstract, in the old high way, but his rhetorical structures, his diction and syntax, are extraordinary beyond the pale. But Cummings. There’s a sonneteer who has been overlooked a bit, because people are more interested in his tricks and his punctuation. I haven’t read them in a while, but I remember reading his sonnets a while back and thinking that they were extremely well-wrought. Greg Williamson is extraordinary. His sonnets are smart and funny. The review of his recent book in POETRY, well, that woman is about as stupid a critic as comes around the bend. She talked about rhyming couplets in his poems. There are no rhyming couplets. She suggested some of the poems turned on the word, “until.” They ALL turn on the word until. She suggested they needed a deeper theme. They are ALL about DEATH. I wish I had a better word for her, but the best I can come up with is “stupid.” Carrie Jerrell has a killer group of sonnets in her recent book. She was a student of Greg’s and of mine, so she had better write a good sonnet. But I tell you, she is better than good. I like what Hopkins does now and then, but I think his greater achievement is the curtal sonnet. Sometimes the longer poems are a bit overly exclamatory in their intensity of alliteration and assonance. It’s like the food you see on that website, I think it’s called, ThisIsWhyYou’reFat.com. I mean, some of it, you could actually eat it and it would taste good. But it’s over the top a lot of the time. Well, that’s probably an exaggeration. I know William Logan thinks Hopkins is too much. Alicia Stallings has a few perfect sonnets I wouldn’t trade for anything.
We need to move along from some of these “prettier” or “stylish” modes and just write good sentences and good lines.
DA: For the past twelve months, I’ve visited several colleges and answered student questions about running a literary magazine and poetry writing. One of the questions I am asked most is: “How do you select poems?” Could you explain for 32 Poems blog readers what you look for in a poem?
JP: I look for language that is not used up. Fresh language. A lot of poets write like other poets. I steer away from that. Twenty years ago, I might have taken some of these poems. But now, we need to move along from some of these “prettier” or “stylish” modes and just write good sentences and good lines. I prize the beautiful image as much as anybody else, but the most rare thing is the beautiful sentence. I wish poets could write sentences like Herman Melville or Marilyn Robinson. That said, Melville was a horrible poet. I went back to his poems recently, to make sure, and no one need bother. Everyone should read Moby Dick and his short stories and Pierre, among his other fiction.
DA: Another question I’m often asked — and so think blog readers may be interested in your answer — is how long did it take for you to write your book? What steps did you take to get it published?
JP: My first book took a long long time to write. I was sending it out for about ten years. Now, the first six years of sending it out, I thank God it wasn’t published. And rejection does, most often, make the poems and the manuscript improve. The second book and the third book came out relatively quickly, but many of those poems had been in the works for a long time (SEE above). I’m not always sure which poem will end up in which manuscript. I’ve been holding back some love poems for a while, and I hope these will be a part of the book manuscript I’m now composing. I sent that first book to contest after contest. I must have sent it to 50 of them over the years. Maybe more. I was a finalist a handful of times (or more—I lost count). Finally, Roger Lathbury, with Orchises Press, took it. He helped me sort out a few of the weaknesses and to ditch a few very poor titles for the less showy, yet very austere and traditional title, POEMS.
We invited fans of the 32 Poems Facebook page to ask questions of John Poch. How often do readers get to ask the editor of a magazine their questions? Their questions, and John Poch’s answers, follow:
Questions from Fans of the 32 Poems Facebook Page
Facebook Fan: With what journal(s) have you had trouble placing work?
The New Yorker, Field, The Atlantic, and Black Warrior Review have never taken my poems — and many, many others. Even places that have taken poems rejected me many times and continue to say no to new batches of poems. POETRY finally took two of my poems after twenty years of sending to them. They may very well never take another. I don´t think I´ll ever get to the point where someone always wants one of my poems. I mean, I´d hate that. Wouldn´t you? W.S. Merwin writes some awful poems, but who is going to say no to a Merwin poem? Probably not many editors. I might be wrong about that. And Merwin writes wonderful poems, which I´d like him to send to 32 Poems.
Facebook Fan: Whither poetry? Do the problems in publishing pass poetry by, with the subculture growing among its acolytes?
I don´t understand this question. Which subculture and which acolytes? But I will say that, sure, problems in publishing have little to do with poetry. Hardly anyone publishes and promotes poetry to any remarkable end. That makes sense, though, because hardly anyone buys it. The problem isn´t with publishing, but with reading. Americans, in general, don´t read and, especially, don´t buy poetry. Oh well. I love it. I read it. I buy it.
Facebook Fan: Do you see self-publishing making an impact within the poetry community?
I don´t think it makes much of an impact, but I´d have to say WHAT poetry community. The bookfair at AWP? The POETRY Foundation? The local SLAM cafe?
Some good poets have self-published their early work. If I´m not mistaken, Yeats published his own work. You can´t beat that, can you? You haven´t asked me this, but I´ll say that I don´t want to publish my own work in bookform right now. Maybe a broadside or a little chapbook I give to friends. Other than this, I sorta like the rejection, the refining fire of the whole process as one SUBMITS to another reader at a rigorous level in publishing and goes through that process for a while, letting the whole process change one´s work. For the better, one hopes. Certainly, more than 99 percent of poetry mss. being submitted to publishers are not ready for publication. Sadly, many of these slip through and are published. It´s not sad for the person who has been waiting for years and trying really hard, but it´s sad for their work, which could have been better. I hope that doesn´t sound snobby, but it´s true. I speak of my own books. They are much better for the rejection their earlier incarnations “suffered.” Perhaps they should have waited longer. Poems can almost always improve, but one does get tired of waiting. We want approval, to connect with a reader in the best possible way.