A Conversation with Jody Bolz

By Carol Lischau

This is the seventh in a series of blogs written by the editorial staff of the minnesota review interviewing editors and folks in publishing. We hope that these will shed some light on the industry and help you learn more about how, where, and why to submit your work. 

Carol Lischau (CL) : Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your time as editor of Poet Lore? What made working as editor of Poet Lore special?

Jody Bolz (JB): Sure. In a strange way, I feel as if everything I did in my working life before I started editing Poet Lore was preparing me for that experience. I’d wanted to tell stories and make poems since before I could read (I’d dictate them to my Russian-born grandmother, whose English was less than perfect, too!)–but as an adult, I began to worry about the solitary nature of a writing life. Though there’s nothing more exhilarating than that kind of solitude when your work’s going well, it can fill you with lonely self-doubt the rest of the time.

What made the jobs I did for a living so attractive to me was joining the communities they gathered around their missions: my colleagues at The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy when I worked as an environmental writer and editor, and the English department faculty and students during the 20-some years I taught creative writing at George Washington University. Though my interest in these jobs grew out of my enchantment (or obsession) with language, it wasn’t until I began editing Poet Lore in 2002 that my life as a poet and my working-world lives merged completely.

What was fascinating about this magazine in particular was the richness of its history. One summer, I took a scholar’s desk at the Library of Congress and read through Poet Lore’s archives. I came across poems by Rilke, Tagore, Mallarme, and scores of other world writers in the early decades–not to mention the ads subscriber Walt Whitman paid to run in three successive issues (for Leaves of Grass). I also found the early poems–sometimes the very first published works–of Mary Oliver, Linda Pastan, Carl Phillips, Carolyn Forche, D. Nurkse, Pablo Medina, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, and so many others. It was like time traveling, but what I was encountering wasn’t a history of events but a history of feeling.

CL: Did you read poems from the ‘slush’ pile or mostly the ones your editorial staff sent to you in second or third rounds?

JB: Ethelbert and I made a commitment from the start to read every poem that came in, including handwritten manuscripts that arrived by mail from incarcerated writers.  We had no first readers at all until our last two or three months at The Writer’s Center, when we were putting together our final issue. We didn’t want to miss anything that came to us, and since we weren’t affiliated with a university, there wasn’t a student population participating in the work, though we did have interns who served as editorial assistants. It meant a lot to those who submitted to us to know that the people who actually made the decisions on publication were, in fact, reading their work.

CL: I have heard it is rare for editors to interact with poets and suggest edits before sending to print, but you and I have had that experience together. What makes you decide to talk with a writer about suggested edits?

JB: This is my favorite question. When Ethelbert and I first started editing together, we had a discussion about whether to manage our work the standard way, by making “yes” or “no” decisions–and simply encouraging a few other poets whose work we liked, Since my background was in college teaching and magazine editing, I suggested a fourth response: acceptance followed by working through substantive revisions with the poet.

We admitted to ourselves that polished poems were pretty easy to find, but many of the really ambitious and memorable poems were not polished. We found ourselves dwelling on work at each meeting that was flawed in some fixable way (a lapse into sentimentality, a lack of clarity, unintentional diction shifts) but was engaged and engaging, poems that held our attention long after we’d read them, If we believed in the submission, we accepted it and went to work with the poet on perceived shortcomings that might have kept us from accepting it otherwise. That decision in 2002 opened up an era of fruitful correspondence and close collaboration with our writers.

CL: What was your favorite issue to put together and why?

JB: That’s a hard question. There were many issues that were my favorites until the next one came out. I guess if I had to choose, I’d say our 125th anniversary issue (Fall/Winter 2014), which has a great group of essays on the magazine’s history, including one by scholar Melissa Girard on Paul Laurence Dunbar as a Bohemian poet. And also the Spring/Summer 2019 issue, our last as an editorial team.

CL: What are you proudest of during your tenure as editor?

JB: I’m proudest of the relationships I’ve formed with a remarkable and remarkably diverse community of poets, the discoveries we made, and the ways in which our editing served the poets whose work we championed. And I’m glad about our decision to reinstate translation as a prominent element of the journal’s content by getting Suzanne Zweizig involved as our translation editor. Her efforts resulted in our presenting marvelous portfolios of poetry from such cultures as Turkey, Myanmar, Iran, Togo, Uruguay, Macedonia and Afghanistan.

CL: Anything else to add about editing, publishing, writing, or poems in general?

JB: I’m grateful that I’ve been able to participate in the ongoing conversation about poetry in this unsettling historical moment–and that Ethelbert and I were able to keep the journal vivid and surprising in this strange new century. I think we need poetry more than ever now. We need language that can cut through the degraded speech of selling and spinning.

Anything one can do as a poet, an editor, or a publisher to enrich the imagination and deepen acts of attention is worth a great deal.

To read the full interview, follow the link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1DyOJLKZwy19sqUTCQncX8lDChj00JabVlTexUVJpqdo/edit?usp=sharing


Jody Bolz is the former editor of Poet Lore, our nation’s oldest poetry journal, established in 1889. Throughout her 17-year tenure as editor (from 2002-2019), she took part in discovering some of our nation’s beloved poets as well as in shaping each issue with its history and historical moment in mind.

Carol Lischau is a poet and reader at tmr, and her poem, “I Love You A Lot Of,” was chosen by Bolz to appear in her final Spring/Summer 2019 issue as editor of Poet Lore.


One thought on “A Conversation with Jody Bolz

  1. Pingback: Jody Bolz | literarydc

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