As I read your work in consideration for The Tishman Review’s print issue, I’m hearing your poem being read by Major Jackson or Naomi Shihab Nye. Or sometimes, depending on my mood, Billy Collins. Recently a few of my grad school friends have popped up there too. I know it sounds strange. It is strange. But I still do it. That’s how I hear it, and I’m not sorry. Have you ever been to one of Naomi Shihab Nye’s readings? She’s powerful the way a summer wind is powerful—a force, but a pleasure to be among. As a listener I feel as if she knows every word she’s reading so intimately that she can’t help but bathe in it. It’s part of the magic of her readings. And if you’ve ever had the chance to be in the room when Major Jackson reads, you know what he can do with words. He plays a poem like a saxophone—employs his own embouchure, careful of timbre and vibrato.
As poetry editor here at TTR, I read at least three-dozen poems a day. I know that’s not much compared to other editors of bigger rags, but it’s still plenty. Early on as a poetry editor I realized that if I wasn’t careful and didn’t take the time to hear each piece as much as I held and read each piece, I could easily dismiss the work far too soon. I don’t know who you are when I read your poem. I don’t know if you’re young or old, where you come from or where you’re going. I don’t know if you’re a man or woman, or if you’ve been in war or at war, or have lived life as a hermit tucked in the mountains. I don’t know your publishing history or your education, if you’re married with ten children, or share your life with a small handful of people. I know nothing but the words you give me.
So I began to imagine the words sent to me were sent by the poets I admire most, and by the people with whom I have shared my great love of words. It’s like opening an email from a friend who’s saying, “Maura, you have to read this!” It’s made the journey of putting together an issue so much more.
I am aware that reading this little tidbit of how I digest your work might be a bit appalling to you. I mean, how do I know which voice to insert in the poem as I’m reading it? What if you are NOT a woman and I have Naomi Shihab Nye in my head that day? Or what if the poem is about witnessing a crime and here I’ve got Billy Colllins being ironic and insinuating in my ear? It’s not that simple. I often interchange voices, too. I read everything submitted at least twice, and while I don’t keep notes on whose voice I’m hearing with each reading, I like to think that the right voice inserts itself at the right time. For instance, I recently accepted a piece by the poet and educator Joey Kingsley for the April 2016 issue. A line from her poem “Mimicry” reads,
in the rippling face of the lake, I netted a dead bass,
one floating eye measuring the clouds like a sundial,
a catfish stuck halfway down its gullet, barbed as a rose,
its smile full of daggers.”
“Mimicry” is a startlingly rich piece, filled with cuts and grace and earth. When I hear Major Jackson reading it in my head, it’s quiet, nearly a prayer. But when I hear Naomi’s voice in my head, the poem shimmers like sunlight on water, its movement changing from grounded and dense to almost dreamlike.
Why am I telling you this? It’s such an odd practice, to intentionally hear voices in my head, but I think it’s important for you to know that MAJOR JACKSON is reading your work. NAOMI SHIHAB NYE is too. Recently, I started doing this with my own poems as well. As I write, and as I revise, I imagine one of my idols standing at a podium somewhere with a few hundred eager listeners gathered, reading the poem I have just written. It’s usually galling, like a good dousing of icy water, and makes me continue to work and revise. But sometimes, though rarely, it makes me giddy. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been there, too. The moment when you know you’ve written something that’s really good. Your heart skips a beat and you’ve got that extra kick in your step just after you’re done.
This may or may not help you understand my process, but what I’m trying to say is that when I read your work, I am imagining that it is a great poem. A poem read to me by some pretty impressive writers. It helps me see your work as you see it, even though I know nothing about you. And it helps me to respect the work as it should be respected. Being an editor is hard, especially when it comes to selecting pieces for the magazine. I can’t accept and publish every piece sent in; there just isn’t enough room. But when I read a poem, I hold it up in what I think is the very best light. I am sure (and possibly not even in a parallel universe) that Major Jackson, Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, and a handful of my grad school friends are imagining you reading their work, too.