Our Mission: To Publish Poetry
In which Darlene Young, Poetry Editor of Segullah, reveals the value of a poem about a boob job.
Most people believe that they don’t enjoy poetry. Perhaps they’ve been over-exposed to poetry that is inaccessible. Perhaps they can’t separate poetry from their high school or college experiences of being forced to write papers about poems that other people say are good. Whatever it is, there are definitely some mental blocks out there when it comes to reading poetry. (Despite the number of people who WRITE it, which is the subject of another post I hope to write soon.) I see Segullah as being in a good position to broaden its readers’ exposure to poetry and show them that it can be enjoyable.
Of course, this can’t happen if we don’t get enough quality submissions! At Segullah we are hoping that with publicity and with our poetry contest we will gradually begin receiving more and more good stuff. And as poets realize there is a place for them to publish, they will be more willing to see themselves as poets and perhaps work harder.
I can’t over-emphasize how important it is to a poet to know that there are places to publish. I myself didn’t start writing poetry as an adult until I discovered Exponent II and Irreantum as potential places to publish. So I have a definite sense of mission for Segullah, both in terms of creating an audience for poetry and providing a forum for poets.
But I have some mixed feelings when it comes to setting standards of quality for Segullah. When I was first writing poetry, I wrote some stuff that was, well, not really great. At that time, Harlow Clark was poetry editor at Irreantum and he accepted some of my (weak) stuff. He even wrote an article in Irreantum around that time called “Room to be Lousy” (which he insists wasn’t specifically about me, but hey, I’m not stupid) in which he spoke of the need for a place for growing poets to publish even when they are not very good yet. I can’t argue with him—probably if I hadn’t seen that success early on, I would have given up.
Which puts me in a difficult position as a poetry editor now. I want to foster the growth of new LDS poets. But if I publish lousy stuff, better poets, potential contributors, will read Segullah and think that it is not for them and so they won’t send me anything. I want to keep high standards so that we will receive high-quality submissions and so that the audience will learn what good poetry is. But I want to give “lousy” poets who show some potential a chance. When I don’t feel we have much really great stuff to put in an issue, how far should I lower our standards in order to fill pages and in order to give new poets a chance? Do you other editors struggle with this question?
At Segullah, when we (the poetry board) are deciding what to publish and when we have enough decent submissions that we can be picky, here are the criteria that we use: Is it a quality piece? Does it speak to a woman’s experience? Does it speak to a Mormon’s experience? Even better: does it speak to a Mormon woman’s experience? Does it address our issue’s theme? Although we hope we haven’t published any bad poetry, we sometimes publish poetry that is less technically skilled because its theme is pertinent to our mission, or because it fits the issue’s theme so well.
For example, here’s a poem of mine that Segullah published a few years ago.
Angels of Mercy
by Darlene Young
The Seventh Ward Relief Society
presidency argued long and soft
whether Janie Goodmansen deserved
to have the sisters bring her family meals.
It seems that precedent was vague–
no one was sure if “boob job” qualified
as a legitimate call for aid.
Janie herself had never asked for help–
a fault they found it harder to forgive
even than the vanity behind
the worldliness of D-cup ambition.
But in the end charity did not fail.
The sisters marched on in grim duty
each evening clutching covered casseroles
(for, after all, it wasn’t the children’s fault).
More than once, though, by some oversight
the dessert came out a little short, as if
by some consensus they all knew
that Janie’s husband, Jim, could do
without a piece of pie that night.
Obviously, this is not a very technically accomplished poem. BUT it addressed the Mormon woman’s experience and it fit the issue theme (bodies) perfectly. We’re hoping that very skillful poets will not read this poem and decide that we do not prefer to publish technically accomplished poetry—and at the same time, we are hoping that people who think they do not like poetry (or can’t understand it) will read a poem like this and think, “Hey, that said something in a new way. That’s a poem, and I enjoyed it.” Of course, we are often able to balance less-crafted poems like this one with other more-crafted poems within the same issue (but not always—we can dream, though, right?).
(And I do have to say here that I am not using terms like “crafted” and “technical skill” to mean “less accessible” and “requires a dictionary and a book of literary allusions in order to understand.” These terms are not equivalent, and the mistaken belief that they are has caused many an unfortunate situation for people who might otherwise like to read or write poetry. But that’s another topic for another post.)
How about you other editors? What is your submission pool like? Do you get enough quality submissions that you are able to pick poems that contribute to a certain flavor you wish to convey? Do you have a sense of mission? What do you hope for the future of poetry in your publication?
And what about you readers? Do you enjoy the poetry you’ve found in independent LDS pubs? What do you want to see more (or less) of?