Part two of an interview with Stevie Edwards of Muzzle Magazine.
How do you think Muzzle is conversation with, situated against, or challenges prevailing aesthetics in publishing right now?
While there certainly is no national shortage of online and print poetry journals, small presses focused upon poetry, and poetry readings, there does seem to be a shortage of non-poet readers and listeners of poetry. This disengaged public attitude toward poetry can be observed in Alexandra Petri’s recent Washington Post blog entry, “Is poetry dead?” Petri discusses whether or not Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco’s achievement of the American Dream is a joke because he has overcome great odds as an immigrant and gay man merely “to excel in poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.” Petri’s condemnation of poetry as a dead field elicited quite a stirring from the literary community, poets across the nation yawping But I am, I am, I’m certain I am. Petri responded to the flood of complaints from poets with a snarky second post, “‘Poetry is not dead,’ says poetry.” Although the earnest poet in me is tempted to pick up a pitchfork and shout with my not dead voice toward the general direction of Petri, citing all the not dead poets I have met over the past few years, I wonder if her comments might present a good cause for pause and reflection within the poetic community upon the function of audience. Perhaps it is high time that greater critical attention be paid to general-audience-driven literary movements, such as the Poetry Slam.
To write something completely esoteric and complain that nobody reads it seems slightly illogical, but I think we frequently see poets who are highly published in literary magazines doing just that. I think what Muzzle does well, and I’m not sure if I entirely understood it was what I was setting about at 23 when I started this thing, is publish poems that care about aboutness, poems that care about audience, poems that stick with people because they are trying to stick with people.
What journals are you/Muzzle reading right now?
I like Rattle, Vinyl Poetry, Southern Indiana Review, Drunken Boat, Birdfeast, Blackbird, Guernica, and PANK. I also try and through as many others as I can — but I think the journals have editors doing really good work.
Which poets are you currently excited about right now? Who do you think people should be looking out for?
A number of our former contributors have new books out or coming out soon that I think need to be read widely: Rachel McKibbens, Marty McConnell, Jamaal May, Marcus Wicker, Sally Wen Mao, Vievee Francis, Eugenia Leigh, Brynn Saito, and Kendra DeColo. I’m sure I’m missing some people; but they’re all books I’ve already read or am planning on reading soon.
Also, Rickey Laurentiis, Ocean Vuong, and Saeed Jones don’t have full-length books out yet, but I think people should keep their eyes out for them.
For writers we haven’t published, I’m really excited about Natalie Diaz, Traci Brimhall, Aracelis Girmay, Jericho Brown, Richard Siken, and Roger Reeves.
If Muzzle were a booming American city, which city would it be and why?
It’d be Chicago. That’s where it came from. I think living in the most segregated city in the USA and working in non-profits that provided programming for CPS schools in my early 20s greatly influenced my focus on diversity, on representing different kinds of intelligences and life experiences. Also, Chicago is where the Poetry Slam was born and was the first place where I really felt like I was part of an artistic community.
What does Muzzle look for in poems?
I believe that it’s important to represent diverse voices, and when I say that I mean much more than what somebody looks like or how they pray; I think it’s important to publish a variety of life experiences, of writing styles and influences, of emotions, of kinds of music. I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of having poems from a variety of emotional registers lately; gosh darn do I like a good, bleeding heart confessional poem. But also, delight is awesome. We really need delight. And fantasy. And new visions out of grief. I’m really into non-corny routes to hope lately.
Also, at the end of the day, I just want something that moves me. Of course, it needs to be well-written, but there are a lot of well-written poems that don’t do much for me. If something with strong craft makes me weep or deep belly laugh, it’s probably going to go in the magazine.
Do you pursue solicitation at all? How do you feel about solicitation for Muzzle?
Most of our issues include about 15 writers, 1-2 of whom are usually solicited. However, we never guarantee publication. I’ve had to reject a couple people I solicited work from. That was awful. I am very stingy about solicitations. Most of what we publish comes from blind submissions, and I’d like to keep it that way. It seems fairer, and I love the joy of discovering a new poet for myself that I didn’t know I was going to love.
How has being the editor for Muzzle, and its founder, informed your writing as a practicing, publishing poet? Can we divorce the two? Should we?
I think, at first working on a literary magazine really boosted my confidence because I got to see how terrible a lot of people were who were submitting (and sometimes getting published) in literary magazines. However, as time has gone on and I’ve grown up as a human and an editor, I’ve really lost that sense of schadenfreude derived from the bottom tier submissions. I find myself more and more hearing myself replaying the knit-picky complaints I make about the really solid final round submissions that get cut—I think it’s made me really afraid of being mediocre or complacent, maybe to a degree that isn’t helpful.
I do think that working for a lit mag makes you more sympathetic to the lives of editors and much less likely to be a jerk to them (which is good).
Lastly, is there anything that you’d like to add that I may have missed in the questions, or that you’d like to address? If I could have asked anything for you to have liked to answer, what would that be?
So, I had a failed experiment with a magazine called Brusque that I learned a lot from. The concept behind Brusque was that I’d give honest responses to everyone who sent a submission. If I loved something, I pledged to be ecstatic about it. If I hated something, I pledged to be scathing about it. As somebody frustrated with getting the nice version of form letters, the ones that say “we liked this and try again but we didn’t like it well enough to publish it,” I thought this would be more humane. I thought, even if it’s nasty, I’d like to know what people think. And I think that’s a common frustration for emerging and maybe even mid-level writers.
What I’ve learned is, at least on the lower tier submissions that have no chance, a form rejection is actually the kindest thing. There are a lot of people who regularly publish in really terrible magazines and that makes them feel happy and validated; and that’s okay. Maybe they’ll buy some poetry books. We need people to buy poetry books. They aren’t hurting anybody and sending harsh feedback to someone you don’t think has any promise is actually not helpful to anyone. I think in general, we all need to be a little more generous with each other and focus on building literary community, not feeding our own egos.
Okay, there’s actually one more question: What is your favorite drink when at a bar? I’m a fan of Sazeracs. Or an Old Fashion. Classic is always best. As is whiskey.
I like a good Manhattan. Sometimes I like Bloody Marys in the night time because I feel like I’m being healthier. I also really enjoy wine; pretty much as long as a bar has chardonnay I’m a really happy camper.