By Peter LaBerge, Founder & Editor-in-Chief.
It’s pretty reasonable to say that Brett Fletcher-Lauer and Lynn Melnick, co-editors of the newly-released Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation anthology (now available from Penguin Books), are superheroes. This is not hard logic to follow. As creative writing enthusiasts stationed in various high schools, colleges, universities, and graduate schools around the globe, many of us on the staff of The Adroit Journal have witnessed first-hand the separation between school and poetry. This anthology is here (“Thank God!”) to change that.
Aside from the anthology, both Brett and Lynn are highly accomplished in their own rights. Brett Fletcher-Lauer is the Deputy Director of the Poetry Society of America, the Poetry Editor of A Public Space, and the author of the collection A Hotel In Belgium. In addition to co-editing several anthologies, including Isn’t It Romantic: 100 Love Poems by Younger American Poets, he is the poetry co-chair for the Brooklyn Book Festival and lives in Brooklyn.
We similarly are huge fans of Lynn. When she’s not working on this marvelous project, Lynn Melnick teaches poetry at the 92nd Street Y and works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She is the author of If I Should Say I Have Hope, named a Top 40 Poetry Book of 2012 by Coldfront Magazine. She grew up in Los Angeles, and currently lives in Brooklyn.
It was my privilege to (electronically, metaphorically) sit down with Brett & Lynn to ask them all the hard-hitting questions – normally, I joke when I say that. But this time, I kind of mean it.
First of all, congratulations on the release of an absolutely stunning anthology. Let’s start simple—what triggered the idea that the world needed an anthology like this, and how did it develop from there?
Thanks so much for such kind words about the anthology, and for this interview! We’ve spoken a little bit about the origin story in The Volta and The Poetry Foundation. We both had early encounters with anthologies of contemporary poems which provided a glimpse into the excitement that poetry written contemporary (or from the word’s origin co-temporary) with the reader could evoke. It goes without saying that poetry from both the distant and recent past often has the same incredible ability to resonate with the present, so this is possibly a big “duh” of thing to say. However, often in the classroom students are only exposed to the more distant poetry. We both recognized in our own experiences that there is a very distinct feeling of encountering for the first time as a young adult literature and poetry which seems to reflect, in language, or ideas, how one is living in the world at that moment, and exposure to that can be very powerful.
As a high school student in 2010 (when I started writing poetry outside of the classroom), I basically made it my mission to read and submit to a wide range of professional literary magazines, such as Beloit Poetry Journal, AGNI, Memorious, and Anti- (R.I.P.). I was surprised at that age to find that editors, teachers and peers alike were shocked I was following and submitting to such “advanced” publications.
To what extent do you believe it’s a young poet’s responsibility to seek out these resources, and to what extent do you believe it’s a teacher’s responsibility to acquaint young poets with them? Do you think a poet grows from his or her independent exploration and inspection of the modern poetry world, or is this hurdle ultimately an exclusive and limiting factor of poetry’s distribution to the “Next Generation”—or both?
It would be difficult to adamantly state that it’s a teacher’s responsibility to know all the ins- and-outs of the contemporary poetry scene, which I don’t think either of us, as practitioners, avid readers, advocates, would pretend to completely know. So a teacher with a class of thirty teenagers buying her supplies for the year might not have “study up on contemporary verse” on the top of her to-do-list. She is certainly not at fault for that, and that might be one of the needs the anthology can speak to, to providing a book which could be adopted in the classroom, to provide that shortcut or gateway, so that a teacher might be better prepared to present poetry to her class, or more excited by presenting to her class, or feel she has a starting point. If a teacher can provide that exposure and encourage an enthusiasm, particularly in the students it resonates with, that’s more than terrific. Certainly we all know the power that teachers and mentors and parents provide in our life as teenagers and adults.
In the back of the book we asked all the contributing poets a series of questions, and we published some of them in their biographical notes, and then their full set of answers on our Tumblr. One of the questions we asked was, “What was the first poem you loved?” And a good deal of the poets answered that they discovered poetry through teachers and parents and grandparents. And not to sound too “family values” about it all, but there can obviously be a great deal of power in that relationship.
As far as submitting to “advanced” publications as a novice writer, there is certainly no harm in it, unless one is at risk of feeling enormously defeated by rejection. Certainly getting used to rejection is a huge hurdle to overcome for any writer, and rejection is such a huge part of being a writer that it might be good to get used to it early! Some might argue that at the earliest stages of a career it might be best to simply read and write rather than spend time considering the publication side of things, but this really boils down to personal preference and priorities. If editors were surprised by your submissions, it may speak to the invisibility of contemporary poetry in teen life – another reason we are happy to try to reverse that!
The anthology also seems to be terrifically diverse in terms of its contributors, with poems from such writers as Tarfia Faizullah (our favorite!), Oliver de la Paz, Eduardo C. Corral, and Aracelis Girmay. How in the world did you pick such a fantastically diverse group of one hundred poets for the anthology?!
It was a very serious and important task we felt we were undertaking, to present a diversity of people and aesthetics. It was something we were dedicated to, even in our original proposal sent to agents and publishers. We want our anthology to reflect the population reading it. It was also one of the greatest pleasures of creating the anthology: to read and fall in love with so many varied poets and poems. In the end, selecting just 100 poems was the problem!
Returning to the second question briefly, what do you think causes the problematic oversimplification of poetry in the average non-arts-affiliated high school and college classroom? Do you have any specific suggestions for teachers around America or the world that hope to diversify their poetic offerings in their respective classrooms?
Well, they could start by ordering a bunch of copies of Please Excuse This Poem!
Probably the real answer to this question requires more study that we’ve been able to give it, but we suspect that part of the problem has to do with the way poetry has often been taught in high schools and, to some extent, colleges. Students get the idea early on that poetry is this convoluted, confusing, coded thing, written by long-dead white people, and that not only don’t they understand what they’re reading, they’re not supposed to understand it and it has nothing to do with them. Those students grow up to be teachers and on and on. If teachers and students were exposed to contemporary poetry they might see pretty quickly how relevant it is to their lives and concerns. It’s probably not as simple as just getting good contemporary poetry into their hands, but it sure is a start.
What’s your best advice for someone (established or not) in the process of articulating or proposing their newest and best anthology idea?
There are anthologies for everything: gardening, muskrats, geographical regions, seasons, the night sky, and on and on. Creating an anthology is a ton of work, and while a good deal of that work is exciting, a good deal is also purely administrative office work. Of course the finished product hopefully trumps everything, and in our case we feel it did. But the point being, make sure it is something you care about and are invested in—because if you aren’t, a publisher isn’t going to be, and neither is the reader.
And, finally, what have you found with regards to adult poets’ malleability compared to youth poets’ malleability? That is, do you think poets become less resistant to stylistic and societal/aesthetic developments over time, or do you think writing poetry in various life stages is more like driving down a road that never lets you (safely) stop steering?
This is a great question. Younger writers are possibly more malleable and impressionable when it comes to style and aesthetics, and more likely to try on a number of things before they figure out what fits. But that doesn’t mean older writers stop growing and experimenting. Even if a fundamental style and voice remains the same, exposure to new poets and ideas changes the DNA every time, so adult readers can definitely benefit from the anthology. All the poems in the anthology were originally written by adults and for adults!