A Conversation With Steph Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, The Nation’s New Poetry Editors

by Justin E. H. Smith


Carmen Giménez Smith & Steph Burt
Photos by Evan Lavender-Smith & Jessica Bennett

On August 7, The Nation announced the appointment of Steph Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith as its new poetry editors. Beginning in the Fall, they will be soliciting and commissioning a wide range of American and international poetry, and will begin accepting submissions on September 15.

Steph Burt is Professor of English at Harvard University, and the author of several books of poetry and criticism, including The Poem Is You (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Carmen Giménez Smith is Professor of English at Virginia Tech, a CantoMundo fellow, and the author of a memoir and four poetry collections, including Milk and Filth, a finalist for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.

On August 15, Carmen and Steph joined Justin E. H. Smith by Skype to talk about their work to come at The Nation, and about poetry in America.

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Justin E. H. Smith: What is poetry doing in The Nation? Does it fit within a unified mission that the magazine has, or is it something more like a breath of fresh air that one can take while absorbing all the difficult news? How do you see it?

Steph Burt: That's a good question. There are a couple of answers I'd want to give to that. The first is that different poems do different things. Carmen and I are only going to print poems we like a lot. But we're not going to like them all for the same reasons. I assume that you like more than one kind of food and my guess is that you listen to more than one kind of music, and that you like different foods and different kinds of music for different reasons. This is sort of the argument of the book about how to read poetry that I'm working on now, so we're talking about that at the same time as we're talking about poetry at The Nation. Different poems do different things. We might print a poem that is a breath of fresh air and a break from thinking abut the struggle against white supremacy; and then we might print a poem whose subtle, careful way of examining language and history shows us how complicated the roots of the problem of white supremacy are; and then we might print a third poem that is a turning-it-up-to-eleven, articulate expression of the need to stay outraged. Those are three good kinds of poem. Three poems in one issue might be a bit much, though if they're short we could do that. Take another urgent problem of politics and culture that The Nation frequently addresses: we might print a poem about the delights of a fruit orchard; we might then print another poem that is a very cold, scientific look at how the earth has changed; and we might print another poem whose emotional undercurrent is, Holy cow! Miami's going to be underwater really soon. Those are three poems that all address the same urgent issue, that's a political issue, but in three different ways, one of which might seem non-political if you're looking at it in a certain way. It is true that in some sense everything is political. It is true in another sense that if the only question you ask about something in your life is, How can I address this as a matter of public policy? Or, How can I address this as a community activist? that's not a life, as someone who is concerned with public policy and with communities, that I want anyone in my community to have to live. So poetry in general can speak to what we need to do together, and it can speak to the lives and the experiences that it is the job of politics to make possible.

Carmen Giménez Smith: I think poetry has always had a role in social-justice movements, and I think rhetorically that there is a way in which theoretical approaches and descriptions, and reportage-based work is vital to changing the world. But I also think that there's a kind of new world-building, a kind of optimistic possibility that gets expressed in art that sometimes can't get expressed in journalism. I also think, again rhetorically –and I think of all writing as having a rhetorical purpose–, that art can say a lot of things and have a tone that cannot be expressed in journalism. So my goal as an editor is to bring works that complement the rigorous journalistic work in the same pages, that add nuance to it, that deepen it, that humanize it. That's how I imagine the curatorial work that Steph and I will be doing for The Nation. I wouldn't necessarily dichotomize poetry into political and apolitical, because in some countries merely expressing the gaze is transgressive, writing a poem is transgressive. I think that having the liberty to look into the world and describe it in itself can be a highly transgressive mode. Having subjectivity isn't a guarantee, no one is guaranteed a subjectivity, and so any kind of expression in art, I think, is implicitly resistant. It's not the way we talk, it's not the way we think, yet we're still moved to be in the world in that way. So I do think that there's a kind of political charge in every expression of poetry, whether it's about just the changing of the seasons or, whether it's about the change of seasons representing the coming of the apocalypse. Which it sure feels like these days.

JEHS: It strikes me that what you both are laying out is fairly continuous with with the tradition of poetry at The Nation. Looking through the poetry archives over the years, there has long been a balance at the magazine between poets who turn it up to eleven, like W. E. B. DuBois or Amiri Baraka, who are writing with a sense of urgency about the state of the world, on the one hand, and then, on the other hand, say, Wallace Stevens or Robert Frost, who are conceiving of poetry as more an interruption in the course of human affairs. Do you see your approach as continuous with the established tradition at The Nation, or is there something new?

SB: I think it is absolutely continuous, though I think I would name Auden and Randall Jarrell rather than Frost, there. Frost's politics are authentically terrifying. But I'm pretty sure there's some great Auden in The Nation if you go back. I don't think that in broad outline my sense of why there is poetry and why there should be poetry in a major politics and culture magazine is a big break. Now, poetry right now sounds different than it did in the past. There are more kinds of poetry being written that are of interest than there were in English 50 or 100 years ago, and we'd like to print poems that come from different traditions, that represent different kinds and subgenres and formal approaches, as long as they're poems that we like a lot. Some of the individual poems are going to look a little new, and some of them, their novelty will unfold once you scrutinize them closely and they will be in recognizable traditions. We want to have some very new writers and some established writers. We want poems that will speak, obviously, to headline news. In broad outline we are carrying forward a terrific project rather than inaugurating one, and it's hard for me to imagine how poetry editors at a magazine of this size and kind would want to inaugurate something brand new when there's such a great set of precedents to build on.

JEHS: The Nation has always seemed to me a curious publication, in that it is or aspires to be patriotic in the good sense, it tries to highlight what's best in American traditions in order to make the place better. And by the same token it's very Americanocentric, so one thing I'm wondering is whether you see part of the mission for poetry in The Nation as breaking away from that orientation that the magazine has had for a long time, and, say, publishing poetry in translation, from poets in other parts of the world, who are living very different political and everyday realities.

CGS: I think that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from poets in other countries. As a translator and as someone whose parents are South American immigrants, I definitely am interested in being an advocate for more translation. America isn't just the United States, we have a much more complex history on this piece of earth. It's a very symbiotic relationship and I think that symbiosis can get overlooked when we're thinking about what being an American is. As someone with a Latin American background I'm especially interested in thinking about the parts of the United States that until recently were not part of the United States, and how Spanish is a language that is spoken by a lot of Americans, and so the kinds of historical and cultural contexts that they could provide us for looking at the future of the United States.

SB: Certainly publishing poetry from outside the United States is something that we expect to do some of, and The Nation has done that in the past of course. I do want to distinguish three different questions that you're asking. One is about representing life outside the United States, which is a good thing to do, even or especially for a journal whose readership is primarily within the United States. You're really limiting poetry when your looking only at what and who it can represent, rather than asking how it does the representing and what it brings to language. But that said, of course, we'd like to find poems that represent a broad range of human experience, including experience that is being had outside the US. So that's one question. The second question is poetry from, and by, people outside the US. Now, some of that poetry is in English, in various kinds of English: Nigerian English; Spanglish, which is partly US and partly not; Jamaican English; New Zealand English — I was in New Zealand last year, New Zealand's great, one of the great poets of the 20th century was from New Zealand, but since he never came to America nobody in America knows about him.

JEHS: Who's this?

SB: James K. Baxter.

JEHS: Oh, of course.

SB: You know Baxter, yay!

JEHS: Well, I've come across the name.

SB: He's great. Please go read his late work.

JEHS: I will.

SB: He's also a terrific poet of the Catholic left. Anyway, poetry in English is being written in many, many places, and we'd love to find poetry that is in English, or partly in English, that we can print. The third question is about poetry in translation. Americans, because we're parochial and there are oceans on other side and we neglect Canadians, tend to think of all of the literature that's not American as in translation, which is of course nonsense. But there is of course a lot of literature and poetry that is not English, and poetry in translation presents special challenges, and is harder to do well. We're not going to bring you something that does not sound interesting and is not something you want to listen to in English, just because we know that people who read Thai or people who read Gujarati think that it's great in the original. We're not going to publish anything that we don't think works in English. But of course we would like to publish poems in translation. We have discussed publishing poems in bilingual versions, where you can get the translation and the original online. This would take some coordination, since we don't maintain the website for The Nation, so I won't promise that we're going to do that.

JEHS: The possibilities with an online component of the magazine seem to include opening things up to the oral side of poetry, by, say, having links to recordings. This seems to me like something very new, but also perhaps important, given that some of the emerging tendencies in poetry right now are tendencies that are really not adequately represented on the printed page.

SB: You've asked, again, three questions, and they're all great questions, but I want to answer them separately. The first question is, is it good to make available online recodings, video or audio, of poets reading or performing their work. Of course it is. The second question is, do we plan to do this? The answer is, I don't know. As you may be aware, it is considerably more expensive in time and in money, and requires more humans and more equipment, to make high-quality sound recordings, than to reproduce text, so I don't want to make any promises there. In a world with infinite time and money available to us, I'm sure that we would want to put recordings out there, and magazines that are similar in many ways to The Nation, but that have a little bit more money to play around with, such as The New Yorker, routinely put sound recordings of many of the poems that they publish up on their website. The third question is, what do we want to do about the kinds of poetic composition that have flourished in our time, and that are really designed for spoken-word performance, for audio or for video, or for live, real-time experience, rather than for reading on a page. My answer to that is that when those kinds of performance emerged, some of them were created in conscious opposition to poetry written for the printed page. At this point, in 2017, there are poets who do both things, get paid for both things and have audiences in both things, both as spoken-word performers in competitive stage situations, and as people who write books, where you can just go home, have a cup of coffee, open the book and read silently to yourself, and it's great. Carmen and I are not going to publish in a magazine that is made of dead trees anything that isn't really rewarding for you to read ten times in the course of a week, on dead trees, in ink. We're only going to publish poems that work when you read them. But some of those poems will be indebted to, and will overlap with, the very vital spoken-word tradition.

CGS: What's exciting about spoken word is that, being a type of poetry that has primarily been a vigorous part of communities of people of color, of course it should be represented in the pages of any journal. But the question of it translating onto the page, or requiring seeing someone do it, I guess if it requires that, if any poem requires that, whether it's spoken word or not, if it's flat on the page it's flat on the page, and there's nothing we can do. I think what value can come from spoken word is that the English language is so complex, and it's influenced by so many different languages and dictions, and I think spoken word is a nexus of the high and the low. In that regard, having seen the kind of work that people send to The Nation, though it isn't spoken word it is engaging in this same way. One of the really exciting things about The Nation is the way in which people are responding in real time to the things that are occurring in the pages of the magazine and in the world. Spoken word is just one type of poetry in the continuum of work that is responding to the historical moment.

JEHS: I have, now, a few, not personal questions, but perhaps more personal than the previous ones.

SB: If it's too personal I'll tell you.

JEHS: I loved the line from Steph's recent profile of Czesław Miłosz in The Nation, when he says that 'Everyone gets what they care about least'. I think that was in response to winning the Nobel Prize. This made me think about turning that question to you, and asking whether being poetry editor at The Nation is an exception to that law.

SB: I am not someone who has ever been happy doing the same thing all the time. There have always been a bunch of things that I wanted to do with my life and with my energy, and I try to do more than one in the course of any given week, and they're not things where I can do all of them in the course of any given year. To some extent I see what can fit into the rest of my life, into the commitments I've already made, and to some extent I listen to what other people seem to enjoy and ask for. I'm very glad to be taking this on now. It's not a responsibility I would have wanted earlier in my career as a scholar. I still write and research scholarly work on modern contemporary poetry for the scholarly audience. I'm able to do that work a little bit more slowly than, say, ten years ago, and I have a little bit more time for this sort of curatorial public work. And I also think it's the right time in my life to take on this sort of work. It's also the right time because I have the right collaborator. I would not have agreed to do this alone. I have exactly the right collaborator. Carmen and I share strengths, but we also have complementary strengths. One of which is that she teaches in an MFA program, and I don't, another of which is, frankly, regional. The Nation aspires to represent quality journalism and essay writing and poetry writing across the world, and the United States. But it's based in New York, and its a very good idea for people who decide what goes into The Nation for some of them to be outside the Acela Corridor. So, Carmen and I are doing this together, and it's exactly the kind of thing I want to do together with the right person. This is the right time in my life for me to do this. I have a book of my own poems coming out in October. I get asked to write about things that aren't poetry from time to time. I expect to continue to do those things. Inevitably, but also willingly, I do trans visibility stuff. I pick up my kids from after-school. Those are all things I expect to keep doing.

CGS: For myself, I've been working in some editorial capacity for twenty years, I'm a publisher of a small press. It's a type of work that fulfills me unlike anything else. I'm a teacher, editor, author, writer, poet, and it's all part of my experience of being an artist, it's all woven in. Editorial work isn't normally seen as artistic work, but to me it's vital to my work as an artist because it keeps me changing, and thinking about my work and interrogating my work. And I also have the great privilege and delicious experience of being able to read most contemporary work being written. So as I'm reading all of this stuff that people are sending in to The Nation I'm learning more about what people are thinking about the language, and the key words that happen in poetry, the key gestures that I see recurring: I'm learning a lot. Personally, why this work is important is that, as a woman of color, the problems that I've seen in the many years that I've been involved in the literary world is how poorly people of color are sometimes represented. And so there's also an element of advocacy work in any editorial projects that I take on, and that's the most fulfilling aspect. So it's all bound together: editorial work is advocacy work, it's artistic work, and in that way it has a great deal of primacy in my thinking about my life.

JEHS: Do you see yourselves as having different sensibilities as to what makes a good poem?

SB: Our tastes and sense of why there is poetry rather than no poetry overlap enough that we can do this. They overlap a great deal but they're not exactly co-terminous, and we're only going to publish work that we both like a lot. If there were someone who liked exactly what I like, which would be weird, I wouldn't want to do this with such a person.

CGS: I think part of the reason Steph and I are going to work beautifully together is that we've been talking about poetry for many years. We've been thinking about poetry in lots of different ways together in an ongoing conversation, and I think we both have a very similar core in what we love. But I think the divergences are always very productive, and when we've been talking about the kinds of work that we'd like to see, and the names of the authors we come up with, there is crossover. But I think what's really exciting will be the authors that I'm not thinking about, that Steph is thinking about, and the authors that Steph isn't thinking about, that I'm thinking about. Both of us being very open to listening to one another, I think that even if there's, I don't want to say 'tension', but even if there's difference, I see that difference as a positive energy to bring, as a diverse, robust representation of contemporary American poetry. Steph is really brilliant, and can see the entire landscape of contemporary poetry in ways that very few people I know can. So I feel really excited about that.

JEHS: What are the tendencies right now in American poetry that you are particularly excited about?

SB: I feel very attached to a tendency that I call the 'nearly baroque', a kind of delight in the ornamental, in doing more than is strictly required, which is also kind of a defense of private life, and a kind of feminism. That's a tendency in American poetry that I believe in, that I think is kind of close of some of what I'm trying to do in my own work, but only some of it, and that's not necessarily the most important. The kind of directness that comes out of performance traditions, and especially out of African-American performance traditions, is something that is certainly unmistakeable, and is very important right now. Honestly, for every poet that I really like, I could build up a tendency around them, because really, what pushes the art form forward, and what makes poetry worthwhile as poetry, and not just as op-eds, has to do with what a poet can do with the language, with how something is done, and not just with what is being said. If you look at Juan Felipe Herrera, if you look at Terrance Hayes, if you look at D. A. Powell, if you look at Laura Kasischke, if you look at Lucia Perillo, who is not as obviously innovative, but who is just terrific, and who died recently, in her ironies, and in her wit: all of those poets represent important tendencies. Juliana Spahr is someone I'd also name. My favorite first book of the last few years is Brandon Som. He writes pretty slowly, I don't know if we're going to be able to get anything from him. But each of these is a poet who does multiple things, who represents new ways to use language. Some of them are quite reserved and cautious and condensed, some of them are exuberant, some of them are angry a lot. Some of them are notably joyful. I spent part of the morning reading Ross Gay. Every poet I want to go back to is in some sense herself or himself a new tendency.

CGS: I think one exciting, but also bittersweet, development is how people are writing, I don't want to say from hopelessness, but how people are coming to terms with the reality of post-capitalist America. The blinders are coming off, the rose-colored glasses are coming off, and there's a kind of sense of urgency, and sometimes that urgency comes to work as despair, but it's some sense of rage, urgency, anxiety. I guess I would say there's a lot of dystopic thinking. But there's also emancipatory work, work that's much more active in its engagement with subjectivity and being.

JEHS: You have the sense then that the current crisis is at least poetically productive?

CGS: Absolutely. I think also since the recent past people are reading more writers of color than they have before. There's been a more earnest attempt to represent what America really looks like, and those are valuable influences for contemporary poets. I'm hearing about different types of influence, rather than everyone trying to write the Stevensian modernist poem. The kinds of influences that are inflecting the work are more numerous, and that's really exciting, that's changing what poetry looks like.