As a former subscriber and contributor, I was excited to receive a copy of the new Poetry Northwest in the mail along with an invitation to subscribe.
But no thanks.
Normally, I stay out of the fray (this is the first letter I’ve ever written to any publication) but I received a copy a few days after the one-year anniversary of the death of my mother, Margaret Hodge, a venerable “Northwest” poet who contributed to Poetry Northwest many times, and I feel I must speak through her will, as well as for myself. Though I was thrilled to see new work by Stanley Plumly, C. K. Willliams, etc., anyone who knows anything about Northwest poetry knows that beginning the issue with several poems by meta-language poet extraordinaire Richard Kenney is a screeching announcement that the new guard has triumphed over the old. Why be so blatant about your triumph in the first issue and risk alienating so many readers?
And then there’s your review of the selected Roethke! (“Some Books,” Spring 2006) To re-start Poetry Northwest with the declaration that he’s a minor (oh, I’m sorry…minor major) poet is so tacky that it’s almost funny. This isn’t criticism: “If you were only to read one twentieth century American poet, and that poet were Roethke, you wouldn’t learn a thing about twentieth century America.” I understand what you’re getting at—grounded details are beyond the range of a lot of minor poets—but isn’t reading a shelf-full of great, authentic, unique poets (or in combinations, like Stevens and W.C. Williams) the way to get a portrait of America’s outer and inner life?
But it’s not the details of the review so much as the general way it smirks at tradition that doesn’t seem to belong.
So all this moves me to say: Good luck with the magazine (America needs you), but how about calling it something else besides Poetry Northwest?
Ugh, I hated writing this letter, and I trust you could defend yourself from several different and convincing angles. And maybe I’m misreading your intentions.
But gut reactions are gut reactions, and I couldn’t help myself.
I’ve just received the marvelous first issue of your new incarnation of Poetry Northwest. What a terrific cornucopia of exciting poetry and reviews, which surely does the tradition of that benchmark magazine proud. I’ll be recommending the magazine to friends and colleagues.
Gee, I didn’t realize that we out here in the suburbs are bland and heterosexist (“Some Books,” Spring 2006). We don’t somehow think of ourselves that way. But there’s your reviewer in the first issue stating as much I guess. Who traffics in stereotypes here I wonder? Where is the politically correct left when you need ’em?
Edward Derby responds:
I wrote, “No bland heterosexist suburban poems of backyard sparrows here,” which logically does not imply any sweeping judgment of the suburbs, sexists, or sparrows. It simply states what the poems are not. They could be titillating homosexist suburban poems of backyard jackdaws, for example. Wouldn’t that be fun?
The magazine looks good. But I can’t quite understand why the feature on the photographer and the attempt by the interviewer to link his artistic genre to poetry (“Line by Light: An Interview with Jock Sturges,” Spring 2006). Wasn’t needed. I guess you’re
turning poetry into an adjective also in your next issue featuring the screenwriter, too. Do any of these folks actually READ poetry? By poets who haven’t been dead for under fifty years?
The reviews were simply ghastly and snotty (“Some Books,” Spring 2006). You guys are watching The Daily Show too much and trying to outdo each other in cleverness. You have obviously not read the latest quip by Logan on Ashbery where he states that after two poems the rest is sludge. I think you misread his quip about nonsense and sense. The reviews were simply depressing and made me want to stop reading poetry.You’ve squeezed the joy out of it and replaced it with frat boy party quips.
The latest incarnation is packed with mostly very well-known poets. Some of whom I still don’t understand but appreciate reading. This is obviously a very new Poetry Northwest, which is great. It shouldn’t be a copy of the old. I wouldn’t want that. I
feel you probably should have started a new magazine without the title of Poetry Northwest. I guess I just don’t like the new Poetry Northwest. It neither reflects, pays homage or otherwise to the old. Have you even read the old Poetry Northwest?
All the best. But my New York City apartment is not generous on space. So I’ll be reserving it for magazines that don’t depress me.
New York, New York
You probably think I’m crazy, probably am a little bit. Anyway, my last letter criticized your premier issue reviews as depressing. You guys, though, aren’t the only ones who write like self-appointed gatekeepers of the art of poetry. Let’s face it—there are too many poetry books in print for too few people to read them. I think the word I left out criticizing your reviews is a lack of grace.
I’ve enclosed some reviews (you may have seen them already) from the New York Times Book Review. These reviews actually made me want to read these books.
New York, New York
I think the idea of linking poetry to the other arts is timely—much like the scope of some articles in The New York Review of Books. I think you’ve found the significant scope for Poetry Northwest—reawakening the et cetera of science, history, and the arts.
I really appreciate the honesty of the short reviews. The world is polluted with backcover blurb hyperbole.
The first issue of the new Poetry Northwest is pretty amazing. I’m really enjoying the poems—especially Nance Van Winckel’s and C.K. Williams’s. Good stuff! Your reviews are refreshingly prickly—nice to read after so many of the namby-pamby ilk.
I am glad Poetry Northwest has been revived. I must express regret, however, about the tone of Peter Campion’s review of Dana Gioia’s Disappearing Ink (“Against Principles: On the Practice of Criticism,” Spring 2006). It was harsh, one-sided, lacking in the minimal decorum of responsible criticism. It seems the new Poetry Northwest is consciously trying to shake things up, advocate taking strong positions, and boldly risking disapprobation for same. This is preferable to cowardly ingratiation, to be sure. Moreover, Dana Gioia’s work is open to criticism, and I advocate honest discussion of it—indeed, even some strong criticism. Mr. Campion refers to it, though, as “crude,” “vapid,” “mindless,” “ridiculous,” “clumsy,” “silly,” “unconvincing,” “unctuous.” He credits Dana Gioia with not one valid insight. Mr. Campion’s piece is the most hyperbolically harsh book review I have read in years. While I respect many of Dana Gioia’s critical opinions, I maintain some profound disagreements with him. I can appreciate reservation about his work. The rabid vitriol of Mr. Campion’s piece, however, does a disservice to your publication.
Strong disapproval need not go untempered to make its point. Balance does not imply wimpy ingratiation. It suggests fairness, not having an axe to grind. Take strong opinions, yes, and articulate them. Do try to represent those criticized, though, with at least a shred more respect.
David D. Horowitz
I have picked up your first issue numerous times and regularly found something wonderful in it. Your evaluation of Roethke (“Some Books,” Spring 2006) is so plainly and painfully accurate it will cause many to sigh, at once with regret and relief, as it did me. I was heartened to see my early reading of Samual Menashe (in Commonweal, 1975) backed up by Edward Derby in 2006. I read Garth Weber’s account of Billy Collins to my class recently, and they were pleased to know that their own judgment of the sweetly insufferable Mr. C was neither extreme nor unfair. And that prancing prating tinpot poetentate and would-be pontiff Dana Gioia deserves to stay under the mountain of trash Peter Campion dumped on him, and never crawl out. In short, you have taken Poetry Northwest to a splendid new level.
Peter Campion responds:
I want to thank both letter-writers for their consideration. I’m especially grateful to Mr. Horowitz for isolating and listing some of the words I chose to describe Dana Gioia’s prose.
I offer my congratulations on the first issue of Poetry Northwest. It’s elegant and lively—a dramatic combo. I especially like the offerings by Henri Cole, Kevin Millar, Nance Van Winckel, Michael Blumenthal, and Albert Goldbarth. Good poems. I can’t think of any other magazine that has your kind of handsome physical presentation: so much white space around—and especially below—poems. I like the way the space buoys the poems, floats them along into a reader’s eye. The whole enterprise is smart and edgy.
The Editors reply:
We’re delighted that the first issue generated such an outpouring—in these and other letters and e-mails. Many of you responded to the spirit of our reviews. We see the review culture in poetry, except in rare quarters, as far too domesticated. Book reviews aren’t book reports; they ought to seize the heart of a book and define its place in the art. We had one stylistic goal: get in, call it the way you see it, and get out. And make the writing lively.
To the question, Have we even read the old Poetry Northwest? Yes every poem in every issue. We did this prior to restarting the magazine, not just to familiarize ourselves with the important legacy we’ve inherited but also to intensify our understanding of American poetry as curated in this magazine over its 43-year history. We see our new series—with its unique format and design and its new curatorial emphasis—as an extension of the first series, an evolutionary (not triumphal) change. Seeking out artists from other art forms to consider poetry is one example of this new direction. Poets writing about other arts and civic life—things outside the traditional poetry pen—is another. Encouraging and publishing readers’ responses to the poems and commentary published in these pages is still another.
Whether you pat us on the back or smack us upside the head, whether you wish to praise or take issue with our contributors, we want to hear from you. Please, write or e-mail, and thanks to all who’ve written so far.
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Send letters in response to our poetry, commentary, or reviews for publication in the magazine to the firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters also may be mailed to us at 4232 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR 97215. Please include your name, e-mail, postal address, and daytime phone number. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. We regret that we cannot reply to every letter.