Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Hannah Beresford, Poetry Editor of No Tokens
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 how poems get evaluated from within their slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Hannah Beresford, poetry editor for No Tokens.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Hannah Beresford: Every poem we accept is different, every poem teaches me something new. I think that if I could anticipate what the poem does that I like, it could be a great poem, yes, but not among those that have changed me. And, truly, every poem we publish in No Tokens has changed me in some way. I want poems and their poets to know more than me. I want the poem to reveal something I, myself, could never have imagined.
All of this said, the experiences that I have reading those poems that change and teach me can be similar. This is usually a sensory response. My reading or mind’s eye is saturated by a color. That leaves the most lasting impression on me. Which isn’t to say that the poem employs color imagery—although it may. But I begin to, in recollecting it, correlate the poem with a color. Sometimes a poem is black and white. As in, the poem needn’t be especially colorful, per se. I think it’s more often a matter of identity. When a poem is fully developed, its character takes on a color or color scheme for me, or a colorlessness.
The metronomic organs also have a lot to do with how I experience creative work. Breath, heart rate. And secondarily, the reactive organs. A poem that stays in my mind hasn’t transcended for me. When a poem creates something in your body, that becomes a response without an outlet. It’s a response to something imaginary, or maybe it’s a feeling that is indeterminable, unresolvable. Empathy is unresolvable. Anxiety, desire. Many animals, after suffering acute trauma, will shake as a way to dispel the adrenaline and tension remnant in their bodies. The event is over, but those chemicals signaling fight or flight, remain. Without a threat, that bodily response is not useful. So, an animal will shake to release it. Above, I mentioned desire which can be another manifestation of the fight-or-flight response. Liking someone (not loving someone) can be a response of the nervous system. Brain chemistry can create the experience of infatuation. One might become attached to the feeling of liking someone, and because these corporeal phases almost always go without any resolution or outlet, they might develop an ego-projection of the beloved to channel and sustain it. Which is all to say that I like a poem that feels like a close call or a crush. Maybe I want to shake it off, or maybe I don’t.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
To me, the sonic quality of a piece overlays or underpins any and every other decision the writer makes. It is a constant accompaniment. It informs everything, but it precludes nothing. Intentionality is key. Should all poetry be harmonious, undulating, lyrical, sonorous, or hypotactic? Should all prose? I want to feel assured that the sonics of a work were a choice; purposeful. Discordance can inform or reinforce meaning or character. Redundancy, imbalance—too. And sometimes, yes, musicality is affecting.
What craft book would you recommend to new poets? (And why?)
The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo is my favorite craft book. I return to it often. As a teacher, I think it is really invaluable. Hugo’s persona and narration is irreverent (at times) and dated. I think that should be said. But the notion that poets can imagine, can fictionalize, can care about place and story and character is really important to me. My first poetry teacher was the Poet Ai. She wrote for most of her career in dramatic monologues from the POVs of characters. Each of her dramatic monologues possessed a plot—whether it was fully imagined or a speculation on a historical event. I think The Triggering Town is a great playbook to giving poets (especially young poets) that kind of narrative permission.
The Confessional school and memoirists alike know that the self on the page is also an act of imagination. Hugo’s belief is that a poet can better imagine a town they’ve driven through than a town they’ve grown up in. So, if you’re writing about the town you grew up in, how can you describe it as if just passing through? How can you see it anew? On the one hand, if I know that the post office is right beside the coffee shop because I picked my mail up each day on my coffee break, that familiarity is a disadvantage to my storytelling. I might show a character in one place then suddenly the other, without explanation; it’s easy to forget what the reader doesn’t know. On the other hand, if I’m driving through a town and see an arcade next-door to a coffee shop, I might imagine an absurdist scheme between their owners—the caffeine fueled pipeline of preteens from one to the other after school, like the myth of oxygen pumped casinos. But if I lived there, I might know that the coffee shop closes at eleven am and the arcade opens at two. I might disqualify the idea before it has a chance to seed.
Anyway, I could go on forever about this. Poets began as storytellers and I’m interested in seeing the new-growth of that lineage. A lot of undergraduate students need to be disabused of the notion that fiction and poetry cannot share space, or that writing about the self does not require a fiction toolbox, and I think The Triggering Town is a great resource for that.
The Triggering Town also does a phenomenal job of describing why it matters if a poet uses the word escalator in their first stanza, and skeleton in their third. Hugo’s exploration of sonic relationships—especially those less formal, or for which there are no schema or traditional rules—is so illuminating. The sonic map of a poem is a layer to be translated, to make meaning from, and, most importantly, to delight in!
Hannah Beresford, originally of the Helderberg Escarpment of upstate New York, earned her MFA from New York University after spending four years on red dirt at Oklahoma State. Her poems are published in The Adroit Journal, Mid-American Review, Sycamore Review, Pleiades, among others. She is the recipient of a 2019 Poetry Foundation, Poetry Incubator fellowship, a 2017-2018 fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and is a graduate from the Teaching Artist Project, an arts in education training program that centers social justice-based pedagogy. She serves as a poetry editor for No Tokens, a freelance editor in all genres, and has taught poetry and creative writing at NYU, Drew University, and the College of Charleston.