Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Hannah Aizenman, The New Yorker
As a platform for emerging poets, our mission is to provide practical help for serious writers. The community lifts itself up together or not at all. In that light, we’ve been asking some great editors from around the literary community for their frank thoughts on why poems may get accepted/rejected from their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Hannah Aizenman, Poetry Coordinator of The New Yorker.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Hannah Aizenman: I’ll preface my answer here by noting that, while I’m very involved in the reading process, the final decision always falls to the poetry editor, Kevin Young, who actually selects every poem that we publish in The New Yorker. That said, my most honest answer to this question is probably also a bit unhelpful: I don’t really know what moves me until I find it (and if I did, the purpose of my work would be somewhat defeated). What I mean is that I’m always after a poem that I haven’t seen before, a poem that makes something happen with language in a way I couldn’t or wouldn’t have imagined, a poem that creates the space in language for its own (and maybe other, heretofore-unfathomed poems’) possibility, even necessity. It’s not a matter of abstruseness—seemingly simple poems often open language to us (or vice versa) in powerful ways—but of clarity and confidence in the medium. Although the submissions toward which I gravitate are more different from one another than alike, their common thread, I think, is an earnest concern for and engagement with language. However that manifests stylistically, whatever the subject, I’m struck by a poem whose language feels honest, in the sense that it’s considered, urgent and specific to that poem’s particular project. Of the thousands of submitted poems I read, those that go on to appear in the magazine, and those that stick with me (the latter a larger category containing the former—inevitably, we receive more great writing than we are able to publish), seem to me events or occasions in themselves, managing to locate or create a sense of drama, of tension, within their very material, their attention to meaning and to music. I admire technical skill, but clever tricks and performative indulgences resonate far less than when a poem’s craft is in service to a real spirit of inquiry: when it genuinely wants to figure something out and requires these particular words, sounds, images, and spaces to do so—when the language is the story. I’m most intrigued and impressed when a poem seems to have surprised its author, because then it can surprise me. I love when a poem is, well, itself—whatever that may be.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Hannah Aizenman: I think right now is probably a particularly wonderful and difficult time to be a poet just starting to pursue publication. Largely because of the Internet, new poets are, or are capable of being, more educated and celebrated in their craft today than ever before. This, however, can pose its own obstacles when finding one’s footing: especially with social media, but even outside it, the poetry world can feel extremely public and fast-paced, creating a lot of pressure, actual and perceived. I’d encourage new poets to enjoy the benefits of our contemporary landscape—read widely (in and outside of what’s canonized, currently fashionable, and to your particular taste); form (symbiotic, non-exploitative) literary relationships and communities; seek out and create supportive opportunities and platforms—but also to be wary of its more insidious seductions. It’s crucial to allow ourselves the (head)space and time to discover and develop our own voices. In my experience, that can be very tough to do while dogged by more superficial “po-biz” preoccupations: if we believe we have to confine ourselves to a certain style or subject; if we value appearances, approval, and easy affirmation over our capacity for questioning; if we become more concerned with publication credits, prizes, and prestige than with poetry—that shows in the writing. Remember, the writing is the important part. Resist the impulse to shape or judge your work and worth as a writer according to illusory, capricious metrics—instead, hone your faculty for curiosity; learn to follow what truly interests, excites, perplexes, or pains you; put it in the poems. Poetry isn’t a means to an end—it doesn’t have to be competitively regimented in the way that capitalist-careerist culture pretends everything must. Prolificacy and popularity may be fine, but imagining they have any connection with poetry itself will drive you crazy; “playing the game” is all well and good, but pointless if it causes the poetry to suffer. It isn’t so simple, but, also, it is: write what you want to write, pursue what challenges you, remain open to possibility. There’s no magic key, no perfect hack, to unlock poetic “success”—and if there was, would any of us really want to know it? If there’s a secret, for me, it’s to focus on becoming the reader and the writer that you want to be—which is to say, on the reading and the writing. Be generous; trust yourself. Your love of the art is all you can really count on. Let the practice, the process, be what ultimately matters. Let it be enough.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
Hannah Aizenman: This is a hard question! Anything I would offer—“poets should strive for concrete imagery,” or whatever—might be true some of the time, but could never be true all the time, not for every poet or certainly every poem: some poems have no interest in and would not be improved by concrete imagery, and they’re not lesser poems for it. I guess metaphor comes to mind, metaphor in its in many forms, from idiom to allegory—any time we ask language to point in a direction away from itself, one word to illuminate another, which we do all the time and often unconsciously. I don’t necessarily believe that metaphor is the most important element of poetry—or, again, not of all poetry, all poems—but it’s often the place where I as a reader am best able to take a poem’s temperature. It’s a fairly reliable entry point for gauging a poem’s project, its handle on language, its sense of self-control—indeed, its sense of self. Metaphor lets us deftly perform a complex bit of alchemy—we say “love is a rose” (to use a cliché) to alter our understanding of love, but also of roses, and of love again—but it’s easy at once to get carried away with that power and to forget how deeply it pervades our regular vocabulary. It can betray a tendency toward indulgence or overwriting; metaphor, in many poems, proves merely ornamental, fails to pull its weight. It’s also a common site of imprecision, confusion: I often trip over some “x is y” statement (or other construction) and get distracted wondering, well, is it? Not literally—obviously, the point is that it’s figurative, but there should still be some truth, or some productive falseness, in it—so maybe the issue has less to do with accuracy than with purpose: not whether x is actually y, but the ways in which x could be y, or why one might suggest it; what happens in the poem, in the mind, as a result. I wish poets would focus on the metaphors they employ—what they do, and where they’re placed, and how they work, and why; finding not the “best” ones, but the right ones for this particular poem, wielding them skillfully and effectively in this specific context—but that care could be applied to any and every craft technique. As poets, we’re always amateurs, asking, “What serves this poem?”—it’s the first time, every time.
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
Hannah Aizneman: I get rejected constantly! In truth, it doesn’t bother me terribly, I guess partly because I’m used enough to rejection by now to generally anticipate it; it rarely comes as a surprise. I submit work at a pretty glacial pace, and when I do, I tend to think of it a bit like playing the lottery, with comparable odds: I’m hopeful but not expectant, and I remind myself that even if I don’t “win,” I really won’t have lost anything—and, anyway, no one else is keeping score. To make oneself vulnerable is to take a risk, and while we obviously always want to hear a “yes,” I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently wrong with a “no”. This sounds counterintuitive, but I try to treat rejection almost as an opportunity. It’s a chance, like any piece of feedback, for me to ask myself: is there something I should change, or do I stand by what I’ve done? Either way, the outcome is (or can be) positive; perhaps I notice room for revision where I didn’t before, or, alternately, I’m challenged to defend my choices once again to my harshest critic—myself. Even if I truly thought a poem would have been a perfect fit for the journal I sent it to, and even if it hurts to learn otherwise, which it sometimes does, that rejection sends me back to the work, where I belong. It returns me to where I began, to what I actually care about, which is writing. (This perspective is also influenced, to some degree, by my job, probably the least fun part of which is sending some hundreds of rejections every month, often to writers I deeply respect and admire—many of them astronomically more experienced and accomplished than I—and often when I truly appreciate the work I’m declining. When I get down about being on the other side, then, the receiving end, I consider that—do I honestly imagine that I am uniquely above rejection? How could I? Silly.) Rejection is par for the course; globally, the rule, not the exception. Every time I submit, I invite a potential rejection, and if—when—it arrives, I try to meet it (as I would an acceptance) with graciousness and discipline.
Hannah Aizenman holds an MFA in poetry from New York University and works as poetry coordinator for The New Yorker. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bodega, BOAAT, Sycamore Review, Black Warrior Review, and Gigantic Sequins. Born and raised in Birmingham, AL, she now lives in Brooklyn.