Reader’s Roundtable December 2017
At Frontier, we are so proud of our diverse team of readers. They are volunteers and givers—receiving only the heartpayment of poems, on poems, on poems. Every one of these poets is such a valuable piece of what we do, and we want to share their incredible value with you. If you’d like to apply to join the team, click here.
What is your favorite thing a poet can do in a submission? What tells you, immediately, I’ve got to send this poet to the next round?
Michael D. Jones: I appreciate when a poet submits more than one poem. A larger sample of their work is most informative. As a reader, I need to discern each poets’ understanding of “what poetry is”; otherwise, I can only filter their work through my understanding. When I have read three or four poems by the same poet and gained a sense of their poetic line, the traditions they draw on (or not), their unique sensibility, how they employ and leverage language, etc.; when a poet shows me repeatedly the beauty, truth, clarity, intelligence, and freshness of language; then I know that I’ve got to send this poet to the next round!
Penny Newell: Openness: I change so much as a reader, on a day to day basis, but at the moment I am looking for work that feels totally present on the page. Like a room, or a house, or a garden, or even a landscape, I want a poet to have created a whole place that I can experience with their guidance on what to look at and how to see the things that they are pointing me toward. Should I be looking at the outcrop of rock, or feeling the fine spray of water from its face, or noticing the light catching the water, or not seeing any of these things, in a state of distraction?
Maribel Pagan: Usually the part of a poem that fascinates me is not always the poem’s content itself, but how it’s told. Although content is important, we often forget how important the language and sentiment throughout a poem is too. Oftentimes, poets may feel that this means conforming to other poets’ styles, but I feel this means something quite different. I want to see poets grow into their own unique style, where content, language, imagery, experience, and sentiment entwine into its own beautiful version of the poet themselves.
Sophia Noulas: I’m rather picky; I enjoy seeing a poem that successfully follows a theme that isn’t commonly explored. The unique theme speaks to the writers ability for innovation and honesty. People shy away from themes that are difficult to discuss or themes that may show themselves in a negative light; they tend to think of writing like a conversation instead of like a confession. Sticking to a theme denotes dedication and talent in format in order to manipulate it to suit the poet’s needs.
Esther Vincent: Honesty and craft. Honesty in terms of addressing issues in a genuine, raw and authentic way, or presenting a common everyday experience in a fresh light that speaks truths. Honesty in terms of voice as well, presented through a persona. When a poet develops their distinctive voice, a reader is able to appreciate the honesty and validity of that voice. Finally, craft because after all, poetry is an art form.
Afua Ansong: I think it is quiet clear when a poem exudes confidence. It is difficult for me to describe, but even when I read it in my own voice (out loud), the rhythm suggests that the poet is sure about what the poet has presented as the final draft. It is not a question but an answer.
Kyle Liang: When I read a submission, I look for moments in the words, lines, phrases, choices or enjambments that grab me by the shirt (or by the skin) and throw me against the wall. I’m talking about slamming me against something worth talking about. But I also love poems that sit me down and speak to me in a familiar voice, one that I can trust, even if it’s shaking with pain and conviction. Personally, I also pay a lot of attention to form. Nothing makes me more excited to read a poem than when I see that the poet has taken risks with their form–risks in the sense that they allowed the poem to be written how it needed to be written, how it had to be written, rather than imposing their will upon it.
Seneca Basoalto: For me, it all comes down to a thoughtful use of language. The way a person can take their words and fashion them into their own – saying things in a way that I’ve never heard before and knowing how to use language. Don’t simply write down what you feel and what you’re experiencing, but really take the time to consider the message and how you’re saying it. The work I admire most is the work that makes me stop reading and think about what I just read – whether it’s a phrase or just the technical formulation of a sentence.
Why do you volunteer to read for a litmag? What do you feel like you gain from the experience?
Penny Newell: Many poets are hurt and writing against the election of Donald Trump and what this represents in their life or in the lives of others.I shelve these poems alongside Smith’s Autumn and Winter in the little library in my head, which I carry around like armour, reassured that artists and writers retain their ability to name and reveal. I would say that within each batch of poems, I read at least one poem where this hurt is vocal, directed, named, 2-3 poems where the hurt is more personal, identified, isolated, and 1-2 poems where the hurt is immediate, immanent, where the minutiae of the everything the poet touches is slightly charred or affected.
Sophia Noulas: Access to the diaspora is a big draw. By working for litmags and small presses I’m able to discover writers before other readers are able to. I also am able to see how poets and authors evolve in real time. I get to peer behind the curtain to see whether or not they chose to adapt or abandon a style based on input and which tricks they choose to stand by. Writers will reference works that my friends and I have not read, so I now have someone new to study and in this way, I’m able to learn along with the submitters.
Esther Vincent: I volunteer because I want to give and I believe I still have much to learn. I believe that volunteering to read, especially beyond one’s social and cultural context (I come from Singapore, a city in Southeast Asia) is essential in order to keep up with global issues, (poetic and political) trends and concerns that affect other poets. Critique helps creation, and there’s always much to learn from anyone’s writing. Volunteering ensures I hone my craft, and keeps me connected to real issues in the writing community. I believe in the power of community for growth, and I’m thankful that Frontier has given me that platform and opportunity to do that.
Afua Ansong: I think the easy answer is that I am looking for voices like mine. I learned very early in my MFA career that I was young but very old school. I realized that reading the King James Version of the Bible daily shaped the way I presented my ideas. And so it was so difficult to initially get published or find readers who appreciated the context and depth of my work. When I started reading poets like Lucille Clifton, Jericho Brown, and lately Nathan McClain, I felt, Yes! there is a place for me as well. It is with this same excitement that I read each poem. I also really appreciate all the different styles, topics, structures and language I am introduced to with each submission. I consider it as a craft school I enroll in every week as means of contributing to the huge literary world.
Seneca Basoalto: It’s all about the ability to experience the work of new writers. There are so many out there and it can be hard to find new stuff to read, and this is a great way to do it. Not to mention that it encourages you to build your skill set and expand your knowledge on poetry. You read so many different types of poetry and you have to learn to be unbiased. To not only choose poems that are your favourite style, but to see the poet for who they are in THEIR style.
Are there any weird coincidences you keep seeing in submissions that you’re dying to talk about?
Michael D. Jones: I am finding recurrent themes of sexuality, abuse, addiction, and loss… all of which lead me to believe that the generation of emerging poets is largely broken and suffering, and their verse largely reflects this: fragments, broken lines, telling instead of showing, disjointed syntax, and statement of “fact” pervade these themes. All of which lends an authentic “truthfulness” to the writing, but undermines traditional (ars poetica) concerns. Now, I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit during the ’60’s and ’70’s. We had all of this and other. And, I suspect that prior generations have had their share of similar social concerns and issues; there is nothing new under the sun. However, as a poet I find this generations insistence on expressing their poetic “truth” as a unique event of brokenness troublesome.
Kate Leland: Lot’s Wife. I read so many poems about Lot’s Wife in the last contest. Writers seem really fixated on her lately, and I totally get the poetic appeal of going back to that unnamed female character. But it can be so hard to find new things to say about such “neat” or inherently interesting subjects. There were also quite a few homages to Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which is so bold! But again, it can be so hard to do a good homage you really, really have to think about what that poem brings to the new poem you’re writing.
Sophia Noulas: Writers enjoy reflecting on their environment so there are a great deal of politics and current events described in the poems we receive. Writing is also a place for personal development, and I’m not sure if this is because there are young poets writing to us but I have definitely noticed a lot of Freudian poems where poets have one-sided examinations of less-than-stellar parents. In cases like this, I look for interesting conflict and unique emotional characteristics because in cases of common topics like this, it all begins to blend together so I forget who wrote what.
Esther Vincent: Not so much weird coincidences but maybe a trend I’ve noticed is a preoccupation with the self that does not seem to serve a larger purpose or comment on larger issues. The personal is always a good starting point but it needs to move beyond that. There’s more to poetry than the poet, and poets need to distinguish themselves from their personae. Poets also need to realise and acknowledge that the art becomes autonomous once it is created and so all the more, the work needs to be political.
Afua Ansong: Love. I see that people usually turn to poetry when they are extremely infatuated or have recently lost the love of their life as a result of death or a bad break-up. Most of the time, these poems are looking for closure and so they are not immediate and lack the emotional truth that a poem is usually supposed to enthrall you with. I am fascinated when I read through a poem on the same subject but don’t find the mention of words like “heart-break,” “love,” “hurt,” “pain” and the other usual suspects. It excites me that someone is challenging the norm, and I think most of the time, those kind of poets have gotten closure beyond the page and have been able to step away from the context of the matter for a while.
Seneca Basoalto: Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of submissions that revolve around racism and feminism. I think it says a lot about what this generation is experiencing in the world right now. There are some powerful, blunt pieces of work that I’ve come across that really show a different perspective of what life is like for various groups of people.