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A Poetry Editor Reveals the Secrets of the Trade: Raymond Hammond on How to Fix the Current Poetry Paradigm

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Raymond Hammond is editor of the poetry journal New York Quarterly and the related book imprint New York Quarterly Books, as well as being an esteemed poet in his own right and the author of a lively polemic, Poetic Amusement. I recently had a wide-ranging conversation with him over email about the state of affairs in the poetry world.

Shivani: There are countless literary journals out there--ranging from the staid and traditional in print, to avant-garde online journals. What is distinctive about The New York Quarterly? What will readers of poetry get from your journal that they may not easily get somewhere else? Rolling Stone once called The New York Quarterly the best poetry magazine in the country. Would Rolling Stone--assuming they were still interested in poetry, which might be a stretch--still think that?

Hammond: I would hope that they would not call us the best. My hope would be that they would call us the most eclectic, or most inclusive, or most read by the average person, but "best" implies a superior condition and we all know that making that decision is a matter of taste of the individual reader, or at least should be. With that said, I do think that we still, as in the days of that quotation, rank right up there with the top tier literary journals.

When I first learned of NYQ, before I was ever published in it and before I met William Packard, I was lost. Most of the journals I ran across at the magazine stand all seemed the same, and I found the poetry pretty flat and dull. The first time I picked up an NYQ, I read it cover to cover--there was a profound resonance for me. So for me, it clearly was the best.

Since becoming the editor of NYQ, I strive for two objectives: eclecticism and straightforwardness.

First, I want the magazine to remain different from any other journal out there. One of the things that I noticed about NYQ the first time I picked it up was how there could be a language poem on one page, a visual poem on the next, a lyric poem after that, etc. There was diversity in style and content on every page.

Then there was plainness about the poems. I could read and understand these poems, and every time I read the magazine again I got another meaning. It was not a crypt-o-quote, it wasn't code, it didn't make me feel stupid, but it did beg me to read again and again.

It is this eclecticism and this straightforwardness that I strive to maintain in the editorial voice. I am very happy that in an article in Luna Park, Greg Weiss says that he was "surprised how much this issue [issue 66] resembled those older issues [from 1973]," which I take as an extreme compliment, and it makes me believe that we would still find ourselves at the top of the Rolling Stone taste buds.

Shivani: I love your heavy emphasis on interviews with poets, a regular feature of the journal--interviews which go beyond the usual surface posturing, and get deep into poetic technique. I think every poetry magazine should include substantial amounts of criticism and interviews, to give contextual depth to the poetry being published in the journal.

Hammond: Absolutely, we strive to bring out that depth in each interview. We say we focus on craft, but that is not entirely true. Yes, we do focus on craft to an extent, the "do you write in your underwear or a top hat or both?" sorts of questions, but what we are really going for in our interviews is something much more subtle and poetic in and of itself.

There is craft and then there is the creative process. The creative process has nothing to do with top hats or typewriters; the creative process is interior, intuitive and that is the nut we try to crack open in our interviews. What makes that poet who they are and write like they do--instinctively, intuitively--we try to search out that true creative process within them.

Shivani: Tell us more about your relationship with William Packard, the legendary founding editor of The New York Quarterly. What kind of an editor was he, and what did you learn from him?

Hammond: Bill was an amazing mentor. He took me under his wing and taught me everything that he knew. He was very giving with his knowledge and experience. I first studied with Bill in his workshop at NYU, but by the end of that semester I knew that I wanted to study with him full-time so I enrolled at NYU in the Masters program at the Gallatin School in order to do that.

One thing that solidified our relationship early on was my serving a warrant that he asked me to serve against this ex-student who was harassing and stalking him. When he handed me the warrant and asked me to serve it one night in class, he said that NYPD couldn't find her. I went out and found her that first night--that impressed him about my character, he would later tell me.

Bill was a tough editor. He always called it like he saw it, never shied away from the truth--no matter how many tears that would bring. He knew the aesthetic that he had for the editorial voice of the magazine and constantly monitored that voice.

After he had a stroke, the first thing he said when I went to see him in the hospital was that he was secretly concerned he would lose that aesthetic because of the stroke. I soon would bring him some poems to work on, and I never will forget the look on his face when he had finished reading them and looked up and said to me, "I still have it, the aesthetic is still there, it survived the stroke."

He used to talk about how strong the aesthetic must be--in anyone--to survive something like a stroke. He also used to say all the time how people were scared of his bark. Bill was an imposing man, easily six feet and built like a linebacker. I witnessed people become demure in front of him all the time, but it wasn't his size they were shrinking from, but rather his personality which was demanding and demonstrative and sure, which was how he edited as well. But he was most proud that despite what people thought about his bark, when they got to know him, he was a big pussy cat.

The most important thing about writing and editing that I learned from Bill was intuition. How to develop and maintain one's intuition--that aesthetic--because he took me through the process from day one and continued to teach this to me every day until he passed and even then some from the grave.

The greatest thing, however, that I learned from Bill was humility. No matter where we would go, no matter who we met, he would always introduce me as his friend. Not once did he call me his student, his mentee, his intern--nothing other than friend. He taught me to keep the ego trip out of the poetry, because it did not belong.

Shivani: In 2009 you started publishing books. What vacuum in poetry is NYQ Books trying to fill? How do you make a press like yours financially successful in an age when a pretty successful poetry book sells a few hundred copies?

Hammond: NYQ Books was always a dream of William Packard's. Not only did he tell me this on numerous occasions, but also after his death we found papers and proposals planning the creation of NYQ Books.

In addition to wanting to fulfill this commission laid down by the founding editor, I wanted to begin NYQ Books to help stem the tide of the acceptance of contests as the arbiters of taste and talent. There is a vacuum of book publishers that do not run contests.

At NYQ Books we select books for publication by invitation only. The poets are already known to us. We just want to publish more of their work than the magazine will allow.

Despite the plans Bill had drafted many years ago for what is now a traditional print model, the press became possible for us and financially viable through print-on-demand technology and internet marketing. This model will only become more viable as we move into ebooks.

The old days of printing hundreds of copies of a book to sit in someone's living room waiting to be sold are over. Now with the new technologies not only do we only print what we need, but there are no storage or distribution problems and most importantly no waste; the new printing paradigm is not only easy on the wallet but easy on the environment as well.

Shivani: What have been some of the most successful poetry books you have published to this date?

Hammond: I am gathering from your question that you are referring to copies sold, or best reviewed, or most attention-getting, or some algorithm thereof. But to me this makes no difference. Some of the books that I am most pleased with publishing have sold the fewest copies, garnered the least attention, and at best only received one short review. I am proud to have published each book and find that simply having them in print is a good measure of success.

Shivani: What lessons from the school of hard knocks can you share with us when it comes to managing a poetry press?

Hammond: One of the greatest lessons learned is the waste that is involved in the old publishing model--especially when it comes to reviews.

While publishing is advancing into the digital age, the review model remains in the dark ages, and it causes publishers to waste not only copies but also money in sending the books out for review. There are so many books for potential review that the chance of any one place reviewing the book is slim to none, and to ask the cash-strapped small press publisher to simply throw away two books, plus the cost of the packaging and postage is ridiculous.

As a direct response to this lesson learned over the past two years, we began NYQ Reviews which is the first review venue that I know of to exclusively review books that were submitted to them electronically. Let's face it, every publisher has a pdf file of the book, or an epub file if it is an ebook. Why not send those files electronically rather than wasting the paper and postage to send physical books that will more than likely wind up just given away, or worse, recycled? We hope that other venues follow suit on this.

Shivani: For at least thirty years now--going back to the eighties with Donald Hall, Greg Kuzma, etc.--there has been a sustained polemic against the McPoem (Donald Hall's term), i.e., the poetry produced in writing workshops. In the 1990s, Joseph Epstein, Dana Gioia, J. D. McClatchy, Thomas Disch, and others picked up the polemic. From your position as an influential editor, what is your take on this controversy? Does the workshop in fact produce a uniform, unambitious, minor product most of the time?

Hammond: I have come to believe that workshops are only in part responsible for the uniform, unambitious, minor products of poetry that we see over and over again.

There are other elements, an entire paradigm that includes workshops, MFA programs, and contests that contribute to this. And the key in your question is the word minor. Although these works are uniform, unambitious and would be minor, it is the paradigm that is elevating these drab works of banality to a level of major--and this, the entire paradigm, is the problem.

The problem with the current paradigm is that it is simply based on credentials and apparently has little or nothing to do with quality of product whatsoever. When a very good, mature poet cannot get a job teaching other poets simply because they don't possess the "club card" of an MFA degree, but a twenty-something with little or no experience is able to get that same job because they do possess an MFA, then there cannot help but be a deterioration in the quality of the writing.

Another major aspect of this contemporary paradigm is the acceptance of contests as being the only possible means by which to publish a book.

I know people who have recently been in classes in MFA programs whose teachers stated very bluntly, "you must enter contests in order to publish." This is unacceptable and writers as a whole should not accept this as fact. If the writers did not affirm contests by entering them, then the whole problem would go away on its own accord.

Contests do nothing but two things. First, they impose a fee where there never used to be a fee, and second they force the publisher to publish a book no matter how bad it is as long as it is better than the others in the contest. No one wins in the contest model.

All of these fees, contest fees, reading fees, MFA fees, and the acceptance of these as the only paradigm in which writers may be assessed put money at the heart of the art. By putting money at the heart of the art we as a society have completely given the art over to capitalism and greed and ladder-climbing and survival of the fittest, not survival of the art.

The current paradigm is allowing money to become the arbiter of taste; those with the money to obtain the MFA and pay to submit both to magazines and to book contests will be deemed poets. Those without these means will be left behind in the dust even though much of their work is equally as good if not better.

The whole paradigm is setting itself up to discriminate along socio-economic lines, and this is something that everyone should be working against in this day and time.

It was bad enough when the publishing community made poetry a commodity, but the current paradigm ignores the poetry altogether and has established the poets themselves as the commodities.

Shivani: Are there better ways for poets to learn their art--I purposely don't use the word craft here-- than through the method of the MFA workshop, which involves mostly peer critique from others at one's own level of accomplishment?

Hammond: At the feet of the masters.

Now this could be taken a number of different ways, and I mean all of them.

First, by reading across history, literally learning at the feet of the masters by reading those masters over and over again. Go to any library or bookstore and there they are--and relatively inexpensive (or free at the library) compared to the cost of an MFA.

Second, I was fortunate to have learned under the mentor model of instruction. This goes back to the ancient days of Greece and probably beyond, mentors taking students under their wings and teaching them over years not just one semester.

When I worked with Bill I was fortunate to work with him from 1994 until his death in 2002. That is over eight years of instruction--there is no way you can pack that into the 3 or 4 months of a semester, or even the two or three years of a program.

We are too quick to become poets in this society--no one is patient. Poets must graduate from undergrad, go into an MFA program and have their first book of poems published by the time they are twenty-four or twenty-five years of age. That is way too young to know what is up and what is down, much less than to contemplate the ways of the universe or even society.

Now it doesn't mean they can't be on their way to becoming a poet at that age, but the paradigm we are presently given in American society says that someone who has earned an MFA, won a contest and had a book published is a "poet" and is in fact more of a poet than the person who has undergone years of life lessons and reading of the masters and patiently writing, but doesn't have a contest win or book or MFA.

Two of my favorite books that we have published came from two women who did not earn an MFA or win a contest. They just simply wrote their entire life and produced work for the sake of the work and are just now publishing their first book of poems: Eileen Hennessy and Grace Zabriskie.

Third, students who do take workshops need to pay close attention to who is giving the feedback in the class--is it the teacher they signed up to learn from or the other students who are at the same level of accomplishment as they are?

I heard about such a problem within the last year or so from an intern that we had about a well-respected poet who has an MFA, has won contest after contest, and has several books published by renowned presses and now teaches at a school in New York.

This intern reported to me that the instructor workshopped poems by projecting the poem onto a screen from a computer, and everyone except for the instructor and the writer, gave their opinions as to what would make the poem better. That is unacceptable and that instructor does not belong in a classroom. It doesn't mean that others in the class cannot have their opinions; after all, it is a workshop. But the instructor should not be a lead voice of opinion; they should be a master of the art. Think about it this way: would you be operated on by a surgeon who learned how to perform surgery not from the instructor, but from a classroom full of students who only had opinions and guesses as to how it should be done?

Shivani: Your own book, Poetic Amusement, is one of the best polemics in the genre I've read--and I've read them all. It's a work of synthesis and accumulation, but also provocation and originality. Do you think a book like this should be part of the MFA "curriculum"? What do you think are some of your most original ideas in this book?

Hammond: I am not sure I have too many original ideas in Poetic Amusement. In writing the book, I initially set out to investigate why the poems that we saw coming in as submissions were so mind-numbingly the same. What I wound up doing was conducting my own investigation of what poetry is and how it is created. I read dozens upon dozens of literary critics over history to the present, and what is contained in my book is a triptych of that journey, a reporting, if you will, of what I found. I just culled it all into one place and organized it around one topic.

When I was writing the book there was, and still is, much argument against MFA programs. There are basically the two camps: those that are for and those that are against MFA programs. William Packard at the time wanted me to decry MFA programs altogether. What I found, though, in writing the book is that the programs themselves can have a place in the literary community if they accept the fact that they need to also teach the muse. And in the book I offer several remedies to this problem.

I see my book as being neither pro nor con MFA programs but rather focusing on what would best support the poetry for the sake of poetry itself. And the revelation that I have found that I don't stress enough in this book is that it is not the MFA programs themselves that cause the problems in contemporary American poetry, it is the paradigm that has come to exist surrounding them.

Rather than using them as a beginning, a tool for poets to learn and then go off and accomplish, the paradigm uses the programs as an ordination, a completion: now you know everything, go off and teach it to others who will be similarly ordained as poets. And this ordination is used to exclude and discriminate as we all know--you either have an MFA or you do not, which only serves to further the gulf between those who do and those who don't, which in turn only serves to perpetuate the vicious pro/con MFA diatribes.

Shivani: You write in Poetic Amusement that "the absence of passion in contemporary American poetry stems, in part, from a basic absence of investment." What do you mean by this? Elsewhere, you talk about the necessity of sincerity. Also, what is your concept of literary stewardship?

Hammond: What do you think makes all of these poems bland, ambivalent and mediocre? That is the definition of "lack of passion." Passion, investment and sincerity are all tied very neatly together with a little something called the muse. The muse, as I discuss it in my book, is that creative process within a poet, intuition as Bill called it, versus the craft of poetry which is the exterior, the writing of the language on the paper.

It is a pretty rare treat when a poem comes into one of our screening sessions and is passionate. It does not mean it will necessarily make it into the magazine because the craft might be lacking as many of the passionate poems we see come in from people who have to write something down but don't exactly have the training or experience to accomplish it successfully.

Unfortunately when you teach only the craft side of writing the poem, the passion gets thrown out with the muse. When poets sit down to write poems without much, if any, inspiration other than to hold onto or seek a job where that job is the extent of the investment, there is not an investment of self.

The investment of the whole being of the poet into the poem is lost just as much as if one were filling in a job application. And when one is doing one thing and saying another, there is a lack of sincerity. Sincerity in a poem is a must, but, again, it takes an investment to be sincere, and poets have no incentive in this current paradigm to invest anything, not even time.

Basically, very basically, literary stewardship is accepting the fact that we are stewards of literature and that stewardship is an important responsibility to know and understand each time we write.

This calls for the writer to accept that there are two infinite timelines: one which extends from the past to the future and the other from the future to the past. The past influences the present, which in turn influences the future and at the same time the future influences the present which redefines the past. Where these two lines converge in the present moment is the moment in which a work may be created, and if that work is created at any other moment in time, it will follow that it is a different work.

The creative principle operates in the eternal now, a timelessness/spacelessness, the present, but the poets, the writers must take time to prepare themselves to be those stewards.

Shivani: When I read the verse of most emerging poets today, despite their verbal ingenuity I find a lack of rhythm or music which hampers full sensual engagement. When you read someone like Berryman, or even an experimentalist like Zukofsky, you hear a rhythm that appeals to the ear. Has poetry moved too close to prose? It would be nice to have some form of meter as a base to depart from, and attention to basics like alliteration and assonance, not to mention occasional rhyme, to get more of a sense of music. Paul Muldoon takes immense, perhaps incomparable, risks, for a contemporary poet. Yet his poetry is always musical.

Hammond: I know exactly what you are talking about.

We have a poet, Richard Kostelanetz, who writes very experimental poetry, often simply words repeated or lists of words with letters replaced sequentially, what have you, but the bottom line is that it is so well crafted it has a rhythm, a sound built within it much more so than most of the poetry we see submitted that is supposed to be lyrical poetry.

We always look for sound to be a part of the poem. I feel that sound is one of the most important aspects of any poem and combine that with strong imagery you have the essence of great poetry.
I am a firm believer in Pound's suggestion that phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia (sight, sound, sense) are all critical components of a poem.

We look for all of these in the poems that we screen. As a matter of fact Pound's ABC of Reading is required reading for all those who come to us to screen submissions along with my own book, William Packard's The Art of Poetry Writing, and Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.

And why Rilke? It is simple, we have found that most people who come to us from writing programs, both undergrad and grad, have not been asked to read Letters to a Young Poet--and one would think that would be standard, so we have them read it to correct that mistake.

Shivani: You and your interns must wade through enormous piles of submissions. What are the most astonishing things you come across?

Hammond: I have been reading submissions for NYQ since 1994--that is a lot of submissions. I still read the first tier submissions along with our editorial assistants.

The most astonishing thing, to me, is the persistence of some of these writers. I say persistence, but one could also say desperation. And that desperation is to be published, which is a result of the current paradigm of publish or perish.

On our online submission manager I have on occasion received a new submission from the same person who just minutes before was rejected. Really? You have not changed how you write in those few minutes, you have obviously not gone and considered what might make your work be rejected, no you simply send more of the same crap.

And I think this begins to touch on another astonishing thing--the resumes. I think those people that send in submission after submission after submission take the rejection personally.

Rejection is simply saying that the poem does not work for the magazine. But I believe that these people begin to think that it is them that we are rejecting, and if they just submit often enough we will take their work. They think they can wear us down if they submit enough. No. It is all about the work. So if you get rejected, there was something we thought was lacking in the work; therefore, sending more of the same type of work with the same understanding that you had in sending the first submission will not get you published. If you get rejected numerous times, try somewhere else to see if that journal is a better fit.

People come to expect publication based upon credentials, based upon their resume. After all most publications all publish the same thing, so why would publication be based upon anything but credentials if all the poetry looks the same?

Shivani: It seems to me that after the radical energies of the 1930s and 1940s (which were briefly revitalized in the 1960s and 1970s), the American publishing establishment has managed to convince writers that poetry--like other writing--is first and foremost an expression of personal angst and turmoil. I think the idea took hold with the repressive climate of the early Cold War years, and most American writers chose the safe way and disengaged--and not only that, but propounded the intersection of art and politics as necessarily didactic and debased. What are your thoughts on this boundary, this live-wire fence one crosses at one's own peril vis-à-vis the powerbrokers of po biz?

Hammond: I think that poetry is bigger than any of this.

I think that there are no boundaries for poetry. I think it simply depends upon the age in which it is written (more specifically the moment) and most certainly upon the poet who is doing the writing. Maybe there are trends the publishers buy into, or the age influences the publishers, but that is driven mostly not by what publishers want to publish but by what they think will sell.

This is the advantage we have at NYQ Books. Using the model we have in place, we can choose books because we like the poetry, be it didactic or dramatic or purely experimental or political. We intend to publish the poems and keep them in print until the public is ready for them.

Shivani: Do you have suggestions for making criticism lively and relevant and influential again? What noteworthy critics do you think are writing today?

Hammond: Criticism has been thrown out with the bathwater. Once creative writing became its own pedagogy apart from the rest of the English department, the critical eye that writers used to develop by reading and studying criticism became non-existent.

You are not required to have any degree in English to apply to MFA programs, and most MFA programs do not require you to read much criticism; therefore, both the knowledge of good criticism and the application of that criticism is non-existent. I think that it is important to the development of the writer for them to develop a critical eye that they can spy taste not only in others' work, but also their own.

So we are right back to the workshop education and the fact of mass student opinion being more formative to the young poet than the opinion of an individual mentor. If criticism is not read, and the only criticism observed is that of other students not wanting anyone to bash their own poems, coupled with the fact that most reviews nowadays are positive or at least "nice," then you find that criticism becomes flat and ordinary.

Teach criticism and critical thinking in the MFA programs--or at least read critics from all ages--or at the very minimum study under a mentor who knows criticism. Any one of these three suggestions is important to getting criticism lively and relevant again, but most importantly, and this is where it is most lacking, return the critical eye to the creative process of writing.

Shivani: Imagine that you are designing the curriculum of a private tutorial lasting two years. What would be some of the most indispensable books on this curriculum?

Hammond: I almost didn't answer this question because there are so many books to list. The basic premise, though, that I want to get across here is the importance of the poet to read--read, read, read, and then read some more. This reading must not only include contemporary poets but also be across time and cultures. It should most definitely include critics, both historical and contemporary, and I firmly believe that it should include famous and important books of other disciplines, such as The Origin of Species, the Bible, Herodotus, etc.

With that said, for an actual program, I would expand upon what I already do for our interns and that is to have a two-pronged approach: reading and writing.

For the writing element, I would have students not only write but read and apply to their own work the works of major American poets from Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, through modernists like Pound and Eliot, to Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, to the beats such as Allen Ginsberg and right up to contemporary writers. They would explore a different time period each week and the reading would be chosen by the student and me together from a master list I would have prepared.

The second prong would include four themed reading lists, again chosen with the student--one each semester: Historical, Critical, Modern, Contemporary. For historical readings I would want to see each student reading Homer, Sappho, Dante, Shakespeare at the very least and then hopefully they would include on their own, Virgil, etc.

For critical readings I would want to see the student read Ovid (for his satires), Longinus, Horace, Wordsworth's Preface, etc. For Modern I would want to see a minimum of Pound, Eliot, H.D. For contemporary I would begin with Ginsberg, make Patchen a must, and move forward to the present.

Shivani: What is the future of NYQ Books? Do you see a growth of other presses operating according to your model in the near future? What is worthy of imitation about your model?

Hammond: I hope we have a bright future ahead of us. I would like to keep these books in print absolutely as long as possible. I, of course, want to branch out into e-books, etc. but that is down the road about six months to a year for us as things look right now.

Let me give you an overview of our model so you can see how simple it really is.

First, we are non-profit, so we let our foundation pay the base cost of the operation--thus overhead is almost nil.

Secondly, we keep the production costs as cheap as possible via print-on-demand technology and online distribution models that are now available--this aspect of our model would not have even been dreamt of in Bill's day. Keeping production and print costs at a minimum and only ordering what we absolutely need which leads to no storage or fulfillment costs, allows us to roll any profits right over into the production of other books.

As print-on-demand and ebooks become more prevalent, I definitely see other presses following this model--it only makes sense. The best thing about our model is that we can choose books to publish based upon the poetry and what we want to present to the public, not solely what we think we can recoup from its sales. This also allows for a book that is selling close to 1,000 copies to help prop up a book that is selling in the dozens of copies at best, so they all stay in print and remain available.

Anis Shivani has just finished a novel, Karachi Raj. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (May 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).