Just over a month ago, I had the opportunity to interview the brilliant David Baker, who has been Poetry Editor at The Kenyon Review since 1995. As a long-time poetry lover and newcomer to the wild and crazy world of literary editing, I was interested in learning from the observations and experiences of someone who’s been in the field for nearly thirty years. Lucky for all of us, David Baker had a lot to share! In celebration of Thanksgiving (and all the good literary things in the world for which we are all grateful), enjoy part one of this two part interview!
1. Do you consider yourself an editor, an evaluator, a curator, a critic, a manager, a reader…? What hats do you wear as Poetry Editor? How would you define your main role at The Kenyon Review?
I consider myself all of these things, and none, and more, of course. I am also a teacher, a father, a neighbor, a consumer, a grouch, you know. At The Kenyon Review, where I have worked on and off for nearly thirty years—and in such capacities as fiction slush reader, Consulting Editor, and since about 1995, Poetry Editor—I have a relatively simple task. I pick the poems we print in KR, in consultation with David Lynn, the Editor, and I confer with him and others on those poems in consideration. I also weigh in on poems we take for KR Online, our parallel e-magazine, which publishes content separate from the print magazine.
It is a simple job and yet it’s pretty daunting. Daunting—because of the sheer numbers of submissions we receive now, numbering in the tens of thousands of poems for each four-month open reading period. Daunting, too—because of the history and aspiration of the magazine itself. It’s a great magazine with a long history dating from John Crowe Ransom’s inaugural issues in 1939, and I am honored by the chance to shape the poetry we print now. I also confer with David about all the criticism—essays, reviews, interviews—relating to poetry that we are seriously considering. I read and read. I invite poets to submit sometimes; I keep my ears open at readings and workshops; and nearly every day I open our online site to read general submissions with eagerness and gratitude.
To do this editorial work, yes, I rely on my critical practice, on my artistic judgment, on my curatorial sense of gathering and showing the work I find most important and beautiful. I do not manage much, though, since all the business and organizational work falls elsewhere. I rely on my best judgment, wherever that comes from, to select the poems and poetry-related work.
2. What is the basic process your team follows in the consideration and selection of submissions? What is your role in that process?
There are surprisingly few people who run a magazine of this type. But we do have a group of people who serve as first readers. We have a smaller group who read the next tier. I read the poems that make it past those readers, and I read the slush as well. No one reads everything. When I find something I want for the magazine, I send it to David [Lynn] for his sign-off. He handles the official acceptances and paperwork. In the past fifteen years I think he’s decided not to keep something I’ve selected maybe two, maybe three times. We are a good team.
Work comes to us primarily through open submissions, but we also receive manuscripts from agents, editors, and teachers of all kinds. I have found poems stuck into my coat pockets. I have had poems left on my home answering machine. I have received faxes and overnight packages and the like, packages with resumes and photos and money and candy. I have been cornered in bookstores and schools and workshops as a poet reads a poem out loud to me, on the spot. I don’t recommend those methods. If someone is interested in submitting work to us, that person should just use the site and trust us: We will read it.
3. What are the key features of your journal, and how important are the mission and aesthetic of your journal when you are considering submissions?
I don’t think about mission and I don’t about our aesthetic identity very much. The large-scale things come into focus better step by step as we attend very carefully to the small-scale things. The aesthetic is formed more after-the-fact, or after-the-poem, and that aesthetic evolves with each new piece we take . . . or, I suppose, also with each piece we don’t take. Of course I have preferences and tastes and judgments, but I also listen hard to the work that comes in.
Our key features are plentiful, and they range from a two-barreled literary enterprise with magazines in both print and electronic formats to satellite projects like summer writing workshops, outreach programs in the schools and universities, a history of sponsoring readings and roundtables and all manner of conversations about the literary arts, and more. We award a large annual prize, The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, whose winners have included Elie Weisel, Joyce Carol Oates, W. S. Merwin, and this year Carl Phillips. I don’t think I want to try to identify our aesthetic features, since they are so various—innovative, traditional, lyrical, dramatic, global, local, you know. Some of our features may be polar opposites of some of our other features.
I can say we aspire to excellence in every single thing we do, and we let writers—emerging and well-known—help us figure out what that means. We publish quite a range of things: poetry, short stories, novel excerpts, drama, creative essays, critical nonfiction, book reviews, and interviews.
This interview was conducted by Kelly Holler, an MA candidate at Virginia Tech. Her hobbies include baking, hiking, and blogging.