On Editorial Choice

I recently received an email from a graduate student asking about why I chose a particular poem.  She was okay with me putting our exchange here in the blog so that others could benefit from the comments:

Hi, my name is _________, and I’m an MFA student at _____ State University. I respect your journal and would like to do a presentation on your editorial process for my publishing class. If you have time to answer a few questions, I’d be grateful. If not, thank you for your time and for publishing an amazing literary magazine.

The specific poem I am focusing on is “Insurance” by Kim Triedman, featured on page 6 of edition 20.

1. Why did you choose this poem? It has the albatross/anabiosis theme, but what else do you look for in choosing poetry? In general, are you ever surprised by what you decide to put in your own journal?

I chose this the way I choose any poem:  there’s something about it that won’t let me let it go.  One criterion is that there can’t be anything in the poem that distracts me (an ugly word choice, for example, or an inappropriate metaphor).  Usually it’s an interesting ending that engages me.  There definitely needs to be a sense of voice, like someone is speaking from a position of authority, knows they have something to say and then they say it in a way that grabs your attention.  I accept poems that I want to read again, that–most importantly–move me in some way, engage my emotions, make me say, “Damn!” and catch my breath.

With this particular poem, I happen to know what nasturtiums are like as my wife plants them, and they are beautiful.  Not sure that has much to do with how I experience the poem–probably–in general I like poems that name things (ever read Robert Haas’s poem “Letter”  in Field Guide p. 65?  Stunning).  I liked the build-up of the ending, the list of participles (“teeming–cascading—extrapolating–luxuriating” and the image of “the little open mouths”:  something that’s coming alive while the rest of the world is at the verge of death/autumn.  And the idea of this being “insurance” against the coming winter, against the death of the summer garden, and summer in general…

This one didn’t have the powerful kicker ending some of them have, but I really liked the tone and voice throughout–that sense of authority, like I said (so many submissions come through, even ones from well-published writers, that are flat and drab).  The opening line is great and engaging:  “There is one thing I get right: every spring I plant the nasturtiums.”

I also pay attention to how the poem sounds.  You’ll notice a lot of assonance in this poem, and I find this especially appealing:

“scritch along the walk like small…”

“greenness, even the blossoms, tipped in gold, their little mouths open.”

2.  Did you receive this poem through the slush pile or was it solicited? Were you familiar with Kim Triedman before publishing her?

I don’t solicit poems directly.  It’s all one big slush pile.  I may have published her in a previous issue–that would be the only way I know her.  Here’s an interesting twist:  we are now friends on Facebook.

3. What is your reading process like? Did anyone other than you read “Insurance” or provide editorial input on the final decision?

I am the only one who reads the submissions.  I’m a one-man band.  Reading process:  every couple of months I say, “Shoot, it’s been a couple of months since I’ve done submissions, so I better catch up…” It’s hardest keeping up with email submissions.  I’m not sure I’m answering your question.  Submit follow-up questions if you like.

You should also consult the Albatross blog, where I talk about examples of my process:


I then asked her about why she picked that particular poem.  Her reply:

Thanks for responding and directing me to your blog! I just looked at it, and I especially enjoyed the entry regarding how you order poems within an issue. The way order influences structure and perspective has always fascinated me (especially the role order plays in Modernist literature). The impact of organization on a literary magazine is interesting, especially how an effective order allows the poems to stand both independently yet also in dialogue with each other.  All of the revision posts are very relevant to my class, and I’ll certainly include them in my presentation.

I was struck by “Insurance” by Kim Triedman for a fairly odd, personal reason: it reminded me of my mother. The more independent I become, the more fascinating my mom becomes as I see her as a “real” person—sometimes, almost as a stranger. The speaker in “Insurance” is probably so many things to so many people, but when she takes the time to plant the nasturtiums she is reasserting herself as a person with her own needs, fears, and hopes. As you noted, there is also some beautiful language and description in the poem. But the thing that makes me go “damn,” so to speak, is the way the poem doesn’t rely on sentiment but instead uses action and metaphor to deliver such an emotional impact. I chose Albatross in general because it takes an ecological stand and challenges humans to consider how we impact the world around us. Poetry can be such a powerful rhetorical tool, and I respect a journal that welcomes work that isn’t afraid to ask big questions.

Ultimately, editorial choice depends on the sensibility, experience, and taste of the editor, all of which results from the powerful complexity of the human brain.  This is why it’s so hard to explain!