national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

What Draws Us In: Behind the Scenes with the Poetry Editors

Before we began our work on the anthology, we might have imagined the poetry group for plain china sifting through a slurry of journals, deeming with a synchronized toss of hands which pieces were accepted. What’s good is good, right? Nope! That couldn’t be further from the truth. We actually spend the majority of our time together squabbling (okay, let’s be real: fighting) over what makes a poem work. Each of us four approaches a piece from a different angle; there are many ways of entering a poem, and we are proud to represent true variety. Here’s what members of the poetry group have to say about what draws us to a good piece, with examples of some of our favorite contemporary works.

Hannah Lipper: As a poetry editor for plain china, I consistently find myself returning to one particular aspect of poetry: musicality. I love music and the ways in which poetry allows us to play with words. I love rhythm and the movement it creates. I love reading a poem aloud and hearing its color.

When I think of musicality—which for me encompasses rhythm, rhyme, meter, and the like—I think of “Artless” by Brenda Shaughnessy, who lectured and read from her work last fall as part of the Poetry at Bennington series. As the opening poem to her third collection, Our Andromeda, Shaughnessy creates space for herself as a poet along with somewhat of a riddle for readers. She immediately introduces the impending intensity of the poems in Our Andromeda, but this poem does not feel entirely confessional. Her writing, categorized by the New Yorker as “ferocious mother poems,” is witty and playful while undertaking serious themes, namely revolving around the birth of her disabled child. Through the repetition of “less” or “ness,” Shaughnessy imparts a lightness or ethereal quality to her poem that perfectly contrasts with the heaviness of the narrative or context. Read aloud, “Artless” is somewhat of a limerick, bouncing words off of words to create rhythm and movement. This playfulness is precisely why I find myself returning to this poem and to Shaughnessy’s work as a whole.

Rachael Meyers: At Bennington, we constantly ask ourselves, What is the purpose of Poetry (with a capital P)?  Of course, it’s not possible to answer this question universally or objectively,  but I believe in poetry as a means for social change, because everyday words can be ascribed so much meaning, thereby empowering a voice. Harryete Mullen exemplifies the idea of poetry as social change playfully, artfully, and poignantly. In her most recent book of poems, Sleeping with the Dictionary, Mullen explores the pleasure of words, play, and the politics of language using word association, sound, and pun. Language is addressed as a system by which Mullen reverts our expectations by calling into question the use of words and communication as a whole. She applies these techniques to address larger issues such as literacy, intellect, and often race.

Her poem “Denigration” is a magnificent collaborative of language poetry and black arts. The manner in which Mullen uses language to suggest the sound of  a harsh racial slur—“nigger”—without ever uttering the word jolts the reader. She skirts it, just as we do in society, using place-marker words: denigration, niggling, nigrescence, niggardly, neglect, negligible, negate, negotiate, renegades, and renege. Not only does one feel as if one is constantly being hit with the unspoken slur, but every word that contains those sounds has a negative connotation. These everyday words take on huge power as the brain forces us to connect them, simply because of their sounds.

 Mullen packs real-world problems into her poems in a way that is accessible and digestible. She forces readers to reconsider the meaning of language and communication, and in doing that, the meaning of ethnicity and social class. Her audience does not solely consist of students and literary scholars, but of those of us who feel oppressed rather than empowered by words—whether they be slurs or expressions of educational hierarchy.

Parke Haskell: I tend to approach a poem structurally.  After the initial read, I pick apart the mechanics: why is this piece working, and how?  Whether the answers to these questions appear by means of enjambment, line arrangement, meter, rhyme, or word choice, each formal decision helps to formulate a holistic understanding of the work.  This is not to say I believe a poem shouldn’t be enjoyed for the way it makes us think or feel.  But it’s not enough for me to luxuriate in the powerful kick of gut-reaction, or to meditate on content. By obtaining structural understanding, I find myself only more in awe; it’s amazing how fairly simple concepts such as repetition, variation, sonic experience, and spatial play can make us experience unbelievable perception shifts and get a taste of a world we may not otherwise have known.

This kind of structural magic is masterfully exemplified in Donald Hall’s seminal poem, “Without.”  Hall dedicated the poem to his recently deceased wife, the poet Jane Kenyon.  The poem is an emotional and linguistic onslaught, presented in eight even stanzas of seven lines, filled with lists of life’s gifts and punctuated by the painful terminology of Kenyon’s illness. The juxtaposition of these two thematic categories embodies the increasing gap between the world of the living and Hall’s world, defined by the ever-diminishing life of Jane.  The poem is without punctuation or capitalization and contains very little verbiage, mimicking the unstoppable force of illness.  It crescendos rhythmically, whipping into a frenzy before crashing into the line, “and how are you doing today I am doing,” then veering into a totally different train of thought, with “one afternoon say the sun came out.”  Hall manages, through the placement of his lines, to simulate the way in which the quotidian small talk of life hits those affected by loss like a gunshot.

These are just some ways Hall presents the content of his poem—by beautifully marrying it to a perfectly suited structure. It’s an enviable skill,  one I search and champion in reading for plain china.

Isabelle Parker: I am always looking for the emotional power a poem holds. Usually I find it in captivating imagery or powerful truths within the lines, but ultimately I look for whether or not the poem conveys a deeper meaning in a powerful way.

Phillip Lopate’s work comes to mind for poems that leave me thinking and feeling after I read them. He isn’t afraid to speak brave human truths, and he’s especially talented at taking the reader inside his relationships, where we can see through his eyes and yet still understand and relate to the intimate humanity we feel through his words. Lopate doesn’t always rely on poetic devices like abstract imagery or wordplay, but whether he lays it out plain and simple or occasionally creates meaning through small, observed details, his poems always make me take a breath after I read them.

His poem, “You Were Afraid” ( below), illustrates this idea. Here, Lopate really grabs my attention by using beautiful, abstract imagery, as well as more plainspoken thoughts and details, to bring to life what happens when a troubled couple tries to sleep. From the overall quiet tone of the piece to the individual images and details, “You Were Afraid” draws me in and stirs  something inside me with its vivid, emotional power.

You Were Afraid

you were afraid
we talked about it
then we went to sleep with the fan on

one of you turned to put your arms around me
another listened to the throbbing diesels
a third hid in the bathroom and cried
two out of three were alone

 how little space our bodies fill in any room
the deserted ceilings for instance
and the undersides of chairs where spiders think

the ledges in refrigerators
where dust collects around the lightbulb
and while we sleep the hair grows in our nostrils

and while we sleep love disappears
like a shadow slipping under the door
leaving only a violet light to wonder at

Of course, this great diversity can make choosing pieces for the publication even more difficult—and rewarding; we learn so much in the process.