Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joy Katz, Editor-at-Large for Pleiades and Pleiades Press. In addition to her work with the journal, Katz has released three collections of poetry: Fabulae (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), The Garden Room (Tupelo Press, 2006), and—most recently—All You Do is Perceive (Four Way Books, 2013). She also coedited with fellow Pleiades Editor-at-Large Kevin Prufer the anthology Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2007). Joy spoke to me over Gchat from her home in Pittsburgh. Our discussion follows. It has been modified from its original version to fit your screen.
Amy Long: What exactly does it mean to be an “Editor-at-Large?”
Joy Katz: It’s a fun job. It means I get to ask poets whose work I find in journals, or whose readings I attend, for new work. Sometimes I’ll read with someone I have never met and love one of their poems. And I can ask for it! Or if I see a poem I admire printed somewhere, or online, I will contact the poet and ask to see work for Pleiades. My job is just to be at large in the world, reading and being attentive to poetry.
AL: That does sound fun! So, you’re not going through the slush pile. Does the rest of the staff do that? Are you involved at all in dividing up those responsibilities?
JK: I don’t go through the slush. I’m in Pittsburgh, and it’s a lot of trouble to send poems back and forth. I’ve worked a lot of slush piles, though. The Missouri editors [Wayne Miller and Kathryn Neurnberger] divide up those tasks. Sometimes they send me poems; I can weigh in when Wayne wants another set of eyes on the work. And vice versa.
AL: Does that free you up to do your own writing, and how does being At Large in the poetry world affect your work?
JK: “Free” to do my own writing has taken on such a different meaning. It always does, depending on what one is doing: graduate school, full-time or freelance work, being a parent… I would say that the At Large arrangement allows an editor to have an impact on the breadth of work available to a magazine, especially work in a different region. A relatively big impact, I mean, given that the other work—the slush pile work and all the editing and managing-editing—happens in the Pleiades offices in Missouri. It’s a good arrangement because it allows all of us to do to what we are able to do given our different locations and circumstances. I don’t have enough time to be a Managing Editor, but I know and love the magazine and want to help shape it, so I can have this job as At-Large Editor. On the other hand, I have a much smaller hand in the magazine than do Wayne and Kathryn and the other editors. My job is really very small.
Being At Large in the poetry world helps my work in that I’m always extra-attentive to writing I encounter. Of course I’m thinking about my own poems all the time. At-Large is a small job, but it spreads into my consciousness as a poet because I’m always “on” for both tasks, paying close attention to all the poetry I read and hear.
AL: Speaking of helping to shape the magazine, how would you characterize the general aesthetic of Pleiades? Or would you ascribe one aesthetic to the journal at all?
JK: Pleiades prints many different kinds of poems. We are all editors who like different kinds of poetry. For instance, once Wayne asked me a question about a narrative poem that came in from someone we had published before. I was resisting the poem; it just wasn’t doing something I was interested in at that particular moment in time. But then Wayne explained how he saw the poem, and it made me see that I had been thinking about the poem in a limited way. I changed my mind about it. (I should say that I am not against narrative poetry. Not at all. I just found this particular poem sentimental, and then after Wayne and I talked, I didn’t.) I appreciate this part of the editing process.
Other magazines have a narrower bandwidth, aesthetically. I like those kinds of magazines, too. If I open the Brooklyn Rail, I’m probably going to find poems I like. Anselm Berrigan is the poetry editor, and there’s a certain aesthetic; it’s his vision. I like to see an editor’s vision. It’s just a different kind of magazine.
AL: When you’ve dealt in slush piles previously, what made something stand out to you? Or—maybe more fun—was there anything you’d get tired of seeing in submissions?
JK: I’m always happy to be surprised. I would rather find an ambitious, slightly messy poem than an airtight poem that feels like all the life was workshopped out of it. But I never tire of seeing any kind of poem. Just when I think, “Please, no more poems about childhood,” I’ll read a poem with childhood in it, and it will be stunning. I think the key is to stay open and not shut down when I see a sestina just because I think the world does not need another sestina. But I believe editors all together form a big net. So, if I let something good fall through, another editor will catch it.
AL: If you get that risk-taking, surprising but sort of messy poem, do you ever ask that someone resubmit a cleaned-up version? What do you do with work that’s so promising you want to accept it but is not quite “there” enough to actually publish?
JK: I try to ask myself if what I perceive as messiness could be part of the meaning of the poem. If the answer is “no,” I might write to the poet and ask to see more work. Or if there are a couple of things that I have strong impulses about, I might ask the poet about those lines or words. I don’t think it’s good for an editor to be prescriptive, though. It leads to all kinds of problems and possibly to disappointment and frustration on both sides. I have once or twice asked a poet to consider a minor change, but I don’t like to do that; it’s not my approach.
AL: You’ve mentioned that Pleiades seeks aesthetic diversity, but what about other kinds of diversity (gender, race, class, established versus emerging writers, etc.)? As an Editor-at-Large, do you take specific steps to foster diversity in the pieces that get published in the journal?
JK: Yes. Diversity is important to me. I am currently working on poems about racial identity, which is a big change in my own work that has affected my editing. All kinds of things are becoming clear to me that I never noticed before. For instance, we need more white editors (and more editors of color, of course—that’s a given and whole topic for another day) who are interested in and seeking work by writers of color.
I was at a panel at the last AWP called “Post Black?” during which a black poet asked the panelists (who were black) about places to publish his work. Should a black poet (for instance) feel limited to journals whose focus is the black aesthetic (not an easy thing to define; in fact: impossible) or that specifically publish lots of or mostly black poets? I hope there will be more white editors reading, following, and seeking work by poets of color. There were not many white people in the room at this panel. It made me see how limited one’s reading can be.
In graduate school, I was in a small class. We were all white-identified poets. I always believed that I was interested in good work by poets of any color. I thought that race did not matter to me; what mattered to me was reading good poetry. But no one said, “Okay, what journals are you reading? What books are you reading? What is coming across your desk?” Those would have been good questions for me to have been asked. What I was reading was pretty much all poetry written by white people. Now when I think back to that time I think, How did I expect this good work by black poets, for example, to find its way to my desk?
AL: The Minnesota Review staff has been asking itself these kinds of questions a lot lately. We’re trying to find ways to increase the submissions we get from writers of color, but our ideas often end up seeming sort of problematic and potentially ghettoizing or tokenizing. Do you have any advice on that front.
JK: I think you have to go out and solicit work from writers you like. You have to be really intentional. You have to find work you like and take an interest in who writes it. It’s more work than waiting for poems to roll in on their own, but I think it’s critical. It means you have to find journals that might not be sitting in your office. You have to ask around and look all over the place online. I’m only talking about race here, but the same goes for poetry of disability, poetry in translation, and other forms of diversity.
Again, to put myself at the awkward center of this awkward topic, back in graduate school, when I thought, “I’m just waiting to come across this great writing that I know must exist by a black poet,” I felt absolutely certain that it would show up somehow if I just waited. It won’t, though. I don’t know the answer, and I’m sure there’s not One answer to the question of diversity. But if a pool of editors does not have in it someone with a strong interest in finding work about or out of disability, for example, it’s probably not going to come in. (There’s a great anthology called Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. If someone’s interested in disability, that would make a great table of contents to scan!). There has to be a reason for that work to show up.
Amy Long is a first-year MFA student in fiction at Virginia Tech. She holds a BA in English and women’s studies and an MA in women’s studies from the University of Florida and is a contributing editor for Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.