Interview with David Baker — Part 2 of 2

Yesterday, the minnesota review blog posted the first half of an interview with David Baker, poetry editor at The Kenyon Review. As you thaw your turkey and get ready to give thanks for all the literary wonder in our universe, grab a cup of pumpkin spiced coffee and enjoy the second half of this interview! Happy Thanksgiving from the minnesota review!

4. Are there any “deal breakers” when it comes to evaluating submissions? Are there any themes, stylistic elements, etc. that automatically signal that a poem is bad? What is a good poem? Do you only publish good poems?

I really have no interest in trying to define good and bad.  Not here, for the purpose of editing, at least.  A static or objective stance is just not viable, is it?  Readers—one at a time, in small or large communities of readership—negotiate those terms, or those qualities, and renegotiate them.  That is the function of criticism, and schooling, and reviews, and anthologies, and all the manners of conversation we have about the art.

Our magazine is one vehicle for that negotiation.

As to the deal breakers, I’ll speak for myself here.  No.  No deal breakers.  I do not presume.  I do not read in search of some prior, ideal “good poem.”  I want the poems I read to tell me what is good and necessary and worthy.  There are no themes, styles, elements, as you say, that automatically signal the bad.  Of course I am more suspicious of some kinds of things—a poem that wants badly to coerce me (politically, spiritually, aesthetically), a poem entirely certain of its purposes, or a poem made of sloppy writing and thinking.  I try to be open-minded and open-hearted when I read, and relentless.  I have lately accepted some very experimental poems and some formally traditional ones.  I have lately taken eco-poetry, prose poetry, personal-narrative poetry, poetry in translation, and many other contemporary types.  I’m less interested in the type than the poem, or how the poem both exemplifies and modifies the notion of type.

5. For students looking to develop their credentials for literary editing, what type of experience would you recommend they acquire? What steps can students take to hone their editorial eyes?

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David Baker, being his awesome self.

To me, credentials are a lot less important than experience.  I learned my editorial stuff by walking into the office of Quarterly West, the week I arrived at the University of Utah to start my Ph. D., and offering to work.  The editor, Terry Hummer, read my stuff, talked with me, and then gave me a book to review and a load of manuscripts to read.  I read.  I am still reading.  I served as Poetry Editor and then Editor-in-Chief of QW, and I have been a reader, an advisory editor, and a judge at several other magazines and presses, and as you know, I’ve been with KR for ages.

Now there are workshops, programs, degrees and such, for literary editing.  There are excellent programs at the Denver Institute, all over New York City (NYU, Columbia, CUNY), and elsewhere.  Some of the big summer workshops have resident or visiting editors, agents, and publishers.  I’m thinking of Bread Loaf and Sewanee, for instance, though our own KR summer workshops purposely do not go in for that professionalization.  I am, myself, increasingly discouraged by the over-professionalization of the art, its commodification into the business model of things, as they say.  Poetry is not a profession.  I aspire to be an avid, rapt amateur.

I think more important than the professional training is one’s literary training and taste and hunger.  Read everything.  Study “literature,” whatever that means to you.  And I certainly do mean the past, the history of the art, not just contemporary writing.  That’s the least of it, actually.  I am no particularly good exemplar, but I don’t have an MFA myself, rather an MA and a PhD.  Much of my scholarly work is in early and 19th century American literature, and Romantic theory, and Greek and Latin lyric, though I’ve done quite a bit of work in the metaphysicals, too, and modern and contemporary literatures.

As to more practical things, if someone really wants to work in literary editing or publishing, show up and do the work.  You can often do the work, these days, from afar, thanks to the internet and all the electronic media.

6. What are the most important elements that determine whether or not a piece of work is selected for publication?

I have selected tiny poems—three lines long.  I have selected very long ones—recently Solmaz Sharif’s “Personal Effects” was about twenty print pages and Brian Teare’s “Clear Water Renga” was quite long.  I don’t think about length but the ratio of length-to-necessity.  I don’t think much about timeliness, either, though at KRO we are able to respond quickly to time-sensitive manuscripts and subjects.  The single most important element that determines my accepting something is, I guess, that that poem just made me hold still, be quiet, pay attention, and learn.  I can so quickly out-talk a poem; in a few lines I can be dissatisfied or unconvinced or turned off.  I want to find that poem that simply keeps me still and quiet and curious and absolutely attuned and, at the end, grateful, thrilled.

7. How has editing for The Kenyon Review impacted your writing? How does the fact that you are a poet impact the manner in which you approach the work of others? Does your role on the literary journal make you a better poet? Does being a poet make you a better editor? And how do both of these roles impact who you are as a person?

Ah, the existential question.   Everything affects everything else—the existential answer.  I do see the mistakes, missteps, clichés, goofs, sloppy thinking that poets make all the time.  I see many of the gestures that we may think are original and profound or authentic but are, actually, symptoms or failures.  Being a poet makes me personally sympathetic to our submitters.  I feel guilty when we hold someone’s manuscript for a few months.  Now, if they would only quit submitting their work to several magazines simultaneously, we might be able to improve that response time.  But of course people seem to be in a hurry to publish, to fill in resumes, to establish credentials—all that professional huzzah.

As to whether any of my work makes any other of my work better, I don’t know.   I do what I do out of love and devotion.  I write poems, as Gertrude Stein said, for myself and strangers.  I teach because I find school an admirable institution, a kind and hopeful way for people to do things together.  And I edit because of a sense of citizenry, of trying to do good work in behalf of a lot of others and in behalf of the art.  Plus, of course, I live in a very small town in rural Ohio.  This way I can stay in touch.  Thanks for letting me do that here.

This interview was conducted by Kelly Holler, a graduate student in English at Virginia Tech. No matter how literary her interests are, she will always have a soft spot for bad science fiction.

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