Most poetry readers I know chuckle wearily at the steady stream of “poetry is dead” articles that have appeared with astonishing tenacity in various venues, including The New York Times, these past few years. The authors of these articles agonize in some way or another over poetry’s irrelevance to modern culture: poetry is too abstract and obscure, they argue, too much an insider’s game, divorced from the real wants and needs (to borrow a phrase from Whitman’s early review of Keats’s poems) of actual bodies in the 21st century.
But why should poetry worry over its relationship to popular culture? Must it be popular (or topical) in order to be vital, in order to sustain a reader, or fortify a readership? What happens to those who win (or live by) popularity contests in the contemporary cultural grind? We know all too well that the speed of the attention-getting news cycle is debilitating. Presidential primaries come and go, talk radio blathers on, discourse hardens, partisans lob grenades from ever deeper trenches. This is what passes for public “relevance” today: market-tested movies, ratings-driven infotainment, language wielded as smoke and mirror, or rather, mustard gas and self-promotion, asphyxiating nuance and subtlety in response. Meanwhile, the atmosphere warms, the oceans rise—we roast while Rome fiddles. Perhaps cultural currency isn’t all that it’s chalked up to be.
Poetry may not be at the center of the three ring circus, but it still holds forth in the fortune teller’s booth, or works long hours tending, grooming, and feeding the animals. What I’ve always liked about poetry is its quiet inclusiveness, its self-sufficiency, its capable compassion. Poetry ranges widely through identity, embracing the individual voice in the plurality, and vice versa. I was reminded of this all over again reading Because You Asked, an energetic new anthology on the writing life edited by Katrina Roberts (Lost Horse Press, 2015), in which dozens of writers reflect on the perseverance of the written word in the torrent of data that defines our age.
Here, for instance, is Tod Marshall’s take on the question of why poetry: “Great poems move in and out of time, inviting us into the temporal frieze that is the text… loosing us back into our time continuum (guess what?) changed.” Even poetry that is outspoken, actively engaged in reshaping social consciousness, blossoms out of meditative stillness, the movement of mind over matter, hand over page. By nature, poetry abides. If it died tomorrow, someone would reinvent it the following day. Someone is reinventing it, even now.
Anyone who teaches or works with kids knows how naturally hungry they are for words that cast spells and awaken spirits. In my job at a community college, I encounter new students every year who arrive with the kind of inner probity that only poetry satisfies. Their poetry-sense has sometimes been damaged in handling by a test-restrictive high school English curriculum, but the hunger for expression remains. Too, when I look at the current vibrancy of small press publishing, I see a poetry of plenitude, of great stylistic variety, of room at the table for everyone. Indeed, I think it could be argued that, given historical inequalities in the publishing industry, poetry has been a leading force for inclusion, for correction and redress. The barriers to entry are low: all you need is pen and paper. Perseverance helps—the sense that there is something worth digging for in language not immediately clickable on the surface, that will reveal itself with time and artful attention. As for publishing, there have never been more options. Editorial diversity abounds up and down the food chain. I do not mean this facetiously. In the ways that poetry truly matters, it is available to all.
In the republic of letters, poetry speaks for (and from) the margin. Indeed, poetry in all its variety is defined by the margin. This is its strength, and also its saving grace. “These boxes are almost empty— / just air and losses,” writes Joan Swift, who first contributed to this magazine in 1959. Her gorgeous poem “Sometimes a Lake” launches this issue, and catalogues the tenuous hold of a life in words which is, nevertheless, the only life we remember, if memory serves. Likewise, Richard Kenney’s poem “Memento Mori” turns time inside out, witnessing the cradle through the grave, and vice versa—a certain slant of light, or two, in fact, crossing against a winter afternoon. Finally, running along a beaten path near Green Lake, Rebecca Hoogs writes a letter to her future self, giving new meaning to projective verse. And so a lifetime in Poetry Northwest comes to pass.
When I became editor of this magazine in late 2009, I set certain goals, and also gave myself a term limit. I wanted to rekindle the frontier spirit of the magazine, the editorial camaraderie of Nelson Bentley, Richard Hugo, and Carolyn Kizer out of which it sprang. I hoped to introduce a new generation of readers to its improvisational traditions: the cross-country dispatch, voices on the edge of discovery, expansive vistas in a compact space, the dialogue with the visual arts, and, above all, the inclusive feminism of Kizer herself, who carried the torch for six significant years, and then passed the torch along.
A magazine should evolve, and revolve, to reflect its community. In 1959, Seattle was a relatively isolated city, and Poetry Northwest a beacon for cosmopolitan rustics, a tavern lined with chainsaw caryatids, a campfire in the wilderness dark. Even in the early 1990s, the Northwest still seemed a long way from everywhere. Poetry news came in monthly or quarterly installments, and you sent out your own parcels by SASE and Pony Express, hoping for a signal in return. These days, we compete for attention with a panoply of internet-enabled ventures, all of which claim a certain slice of readership. What does it mean then to run a local print operation when international publication is a click away?
These past seven years, we’ve tackled some of the challenges of the digital age: a nifty new website to present new work weekly and refurbish our archive, a podcast of writerly conversations we call The Subvocal Zoo, even a batch of video poems, Cinema Poetry NW, now playing on a screen near you. We’ve added these features to attract new readers to our fold, without losing sight of our staple-bound roots. In this way, the better to stand for slow cure print values in a fast-moving market, we’ve decided that adding books to our mission is an essential next step. This year we’ll debut Poetry NW Editions, and the first book in our Cascade Poetry Series— Sierra Nelson’s The Lachrymose Report—will be published in spring 2017. Poetry NW Editions will reflect and enhance our mission to serve as a focal point for poetry-in-print culture in the Pacific NW. To that end, we intend to collaborate with other local publishers, to add to our voice to an already vibrant forum.
This issue (and an assortment of poems held-over for the next) will be my last as day-to-day editor of the magazine. There’s a new team in place—a mix of fresh perspectives and experienced hands to guide the magazine forward. Taking a page from the original editorial cohort, Aaron Barrell and Erin Malone will serve as co-editors. Managing editor Rebecca Brinbury rounds out the bridge. To be sure, I’m not leaving the organization—instead, I want to focus on helping it grow as Poetry NW Editions. Yes, big things lie ahead. Poetry is not going anywhere. In that we may rejoice, one choral voice at a time.
And speaking of choral voices, it takes a lot of people to produce a poetry magazine, especially if you want it to be read far and wide. For me, the greatest pleasure has been working in and among this vibrant community, all of whom donated seemingly endless reserves of time and energy and money, simply for love of the written word. There are many ways of being in poetry–reader, writer, editor, volunteer–as each of these people demonstrate with love and support. By way of gratitude, I want to record their names. Here is my traveling circus. Together, for nearly seven years, we made Poetry Northwest.
Poetry NW Honor Roll 2010 – 2016
Editorial / Production / Web:
Annie Ashley, Aaron Barrell, Jennifer Beebe, William Bernhardt, Cherisa Bertain, Zach Bivins, Justin Boening, Jay Bryant, Bill Carty, Jack Chelgren, Elizabeth Cooperman, Sarah Erikson, Steve Fouts, Kelley Frodel, Willie James, Connie Jensen, Matthew Kelsey, Kimberly Kent, Brandon Krieg, Chris Larson, Erin Malone, Per Nilsson, Katharine Ogle, Carol Peters, Emily Pittinos, Montreux Rotholtz, Lissa Sjogren, Kendra Sowers, Lucas Stanford, Ian Stevens, Tamara Smith, Anastasia Swanlund, Alexis Vergalla, Devon Walker-Figueroa, Rachel Welty
Business / Development / Marketing / Events:
Alison Abraham, Amanda Baker-Patterson, Rebecca Brinbury, Letitia Cain, Joanne Conger, Jennifer Crowder, Josh Fomon, Ian Gazarek, Sarah Greenleaf, Jessica Henry, Carrie Kahler (née Purcell), Hollie Mattie, Margaret McLeod, Allison Mitton, Teresa Myer, Eric Nusbaum, Jill Oberg, Sarah Ohlin, Scott Phillips, Zach Raasch, Kelsey Roberts (née Marcum), Carla Shafer, Michael Shilling, Ghida Sinno, Ian Stevens, Justin Thompson, Julie Zehnder
Gala Bent, Anne Bryant, Jay Bryant, Leslie Cox, Dennis Drenner, Claire Cowie, Maija Fiebig, Kelly Froh, Nick Gentry, Emily Gherard, Robert Hardgrave, Bootsy Holler, David Hytone, Clare Johnson, Doug Keyes, Dianna Kornberg, Amanda Knowles, Counsel Langley, Rich Lehl, Hollie Mattie, Kristine Morfogen, Susan Newbold, Stephanie Pierce, Mary Randlett, Victoria Selwyn, Cheryl Sorg, Adam Summers, Nance Van Winckel, Lloyd Weller, Kumi Yamashita
Contributing Writers & Editors:
Linda Andrews, Quenton Baker, Sandra Beasley, Jen Benka, Joelle Biele, Amy Glynn, Jeff Hardin, Rebecca Hoogs, Troy Jollimore, Nari Kirk, Dan Lamberton, Julie Larios, Paul Lindholdt, Tod Marshall, Claudia Castro Luna, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Stanley Plumly, Adrienne Raphel, Paisley Rekdal, David Rigsbee, Katrina Roberts, Zach Savich, Megan Snyder-Camp, Ed Skoog, Rich Smith, Rose Solari, Jay Thompson, Cody Walker, Emily Warn, Susan Wheeler, Wendy Willis, Andrew Zawacki
EvCC Student Interns:
Annie Ashley, Cherisa Bertain, Megan Brewer, Megan Brown , Hilary Bowen, Katie Burr, Ilona Castro, Thomas Coleman, Sarah Creech, Kara De Folo, Heather Mariah Dixon, Cindy Dreyer, John Eldridge, Jessica Glenn , Taylor Hart, Jenn Hoffman, Chris Larson, Ce’cile Lapinid, Charles Lingerfelt, Teresa Myer, Monica Nguon, Shanna Prather, Josh Reber, Brandon Robertson, Christina Schultz, Aubrie Sedlak, Lissa Sjogren, Tamara Smith, Connie Sowell, Wade Spane, Katy Suarez, Anastasia Swanlund, Jennifer Travis, Courtney Vandyke, Kaleb Weber
Board of Directors & Advisers:
Heather Bennett, Jackson Bennett, Linda Bierds, David Biespiel, Michael Collier, Leslie Cox, Lou Oma Durand, Susie Frazier, Clelia Gore, Tim Greenzwieg, Daniel Lamberton, Craig Lewis, Eugene McAvoy, Robert Pinsky, Bethany Reid, Victoria Selwyn, Andrew Zawacki
The National Endowment for the Arts
The Kinsman Foundation
The Community Foundation of Snohomish County / Robyn Johnson Poetry Fund
Everett Community College
The Everett Community College Foundation
Everett Cultural Arts Commission
Adobe Systems, Inc.
Piraeus Data, Inc.
Pinnacle Gardens Foundation
Ruth & Ed Aspell
Jackson & Katie Bennett
Leslie & Janet Cox
Arielle Devine & Michael Leif
Lou Oma Durand
Susie Frazier & Matt Fingerhut
As for the Poets, you’ll have to leaf through the table of contents, volumes V – X. But don’t stop there. We built each issue to last. –KC (June 9, 2016)