Enjoyably Bizarre and Peculiarly Affecting
Victoria Brockmeier Talks Poetry and Publishing
Victoria Brockmeier—poet, critic, and winner of the 2008 T.S. Eliot prize—recently launched the new poetry magazine, Lumn. The first issue comes out in print in June, and contains poems from well-knowns like Nate Mackey, Dan Beachy-Quick, Michael Snediker, and others. I sat down with Victoria last week to talk about what it takes to launch a literary magazine, why poetry matters, and what makes a particularly terrible chapbook cover.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: First of all, why do we even need a new poetry magazine? While it’s hard to say for sure how many lit magazines are out there,CLMP estimates that there are maybe 600 that are actively publishing, and maybe 400 to 700 more if you count the sporadically-publishing ones. Why add to that?
Victoria Brockmeier: The question itself—and it’s a common one, certainly—rests on an assumption that a poetry publisher cares or should care about market share. I don’t; I doubt I know any who do. No poetry magazine will ever be People or Southern Living or Newsweek, which I think is fine. Most poetry organs, whatever their origins or institutional status, want to create something distinctive, and we know that’s not going to get us tens of thousands of subscribers.
Lumn in particular fills what I see as a real gap in contemporary publishing. I meet a lot of poets who describe their work in terms of a third way or a hybrid between what we see as two major poles in contemporary American publishing: more or less narrative work, including the gamut from Billy Collins to Amiri Baraka, which foregrounds things like clarity and communicativity, and then what goes by the name of “avant-garde” or “experimental poetry,” which makes disrupting or unraveling communicative norms its precinct. There’s a distinct group of writers, as yet unnamed to my knowledge, who are not convinced that postmodernism means we can’t speak as lyric subjects anymore, but who also feel like poetry should go beyond clarity. It’s work by those particular poets that Lumn collects together.
There are a lot of magazines that print poetry I love, but I haven’t yet seen one come out and say, this is our platform, this is what we want to do. So I decided to do it myself.
“Poetry pulls you in and makes you love it so much that you want to reread it and to read more poetry so you can get into its braininess, too. It’s a pedagogy of pleasure.”
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Hm. How are your poets “postmodern” while maintaining their lyricism? Can you elaborate on what “postmodern” traits are in these cases?
Victoria Brockmeier: I’ll take Dean Rader as an illustrative example. His poem “Liminal Landscapes: Six Self Portraits” announces itself as lyrical. It doesn’t make the ironizing move that a Bernstein might make, or the different inflation-deflation dynamic of someone like Robert Creeley, but it definitely doesn’t sit down in an ordinary tradition of introspection / reflection. Rader’s self-portraiting subject doesn’t turn out to be a subject at all, but a plurality of them, and they aren’t people but ghosts. Moreover, they’re not even ghosts of people but figures like “ghost of the air, ghost of the moonbreak and its pieces of glass, ghost of the thigh bone, ghost of the farmer and ghost of the dog, ghost of the hammer” and so on. The poem tells us that “of the ghosts the ghosts say nothing: / they all have the same voice.” So we’ve got a poem that calls itself self-reflection, which then denies coherent selfhood and the possibility of meaningful reflection—but it doesn’t just consign those concepts to old-fashioned sentiment. It explores them—and this is how it’s a good representative of the magazine’s mission overall—thoughtfully but elliptically, permitting aporias, admitting that language fails and then going on to play with it anyway.
And it is very playful, and very beautiful, two things all the poems I’m printing definitely have in common. I do lean weird, in my taste and in my aesthetic politics; however, I want your average curious, but not Ph.D.-educated, reader to be able to pick up the magazine and enjoy it. They aren’t easy poems by any means, but even so, they’re enjoyable. Language you kind of want to roll around in and soak up in your skin.
Ideally, poetry like this pulls you in and makes you love it so much that you want to reread it and to read more poetry so you can get into its braininess, too. It’s a pedagogy of pleasure.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: That’s quite the mission statement.
Victoria Brockmeier: If I’m going to bother doing something, I’m going to do it.
I mean, I could be taking naps.
Anything I do has to be more important than a nap.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Speaking of doing things, this isn’t your first time curating work—you previously ran dove|tail press, right?
Victoria Brockmeier: Yeah, I started that in 2006, while I was a Ph.D. student at UB. Lumn is actually coming out on that imprint, which has been dormant for a bit.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: I know you arranged some live readings for dove|tail contributors—any plans for live events for Lumn?
Victoria Brockmeier: I’d like to get something together for the next AWP conference. The dove|tail readings were funded by the UB poetics program, and I don’t have access to that budget anymore, so I can’t fly people in. I’d love to, though; I like doing events. I do plan to see what I can stir up next year in Seattle, though.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: On the topic of funding—you managed to raise $2,600 in the space of three weeks, more than covering your start-up costs. That’s a fair amount for an indie lit mag, and a lot for an indie poetry magazine. Now, a common criticism is that poetry is only read by other poets. Does that seem to be the case here? Were your backers mostly poets, or friends of poets, or what?
Victoria Brockmeier: It looks like about a third of my backers are poets, actually. A fair number of photographers and other visual artists, and then literature academics, programmers / game designers / etc. who also read poetry, people from outside the core of pobiz.
With the dove|tail readings, the thing of which I was most proud was that I not only drew good attendance, but I got a lot of people to come who didn’t habitually go to poetry events. I’m serious about the notion that poetry should be overtly poetry-y, and enjoyable and engaging for people who aren’t themselves poets, at the same time.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Wait, who are these programmers who read poetry? Is that a distinct sub-group of poetry readers?
Victoria Brockmeier: Ha, no, but it’s a big segment of my friends and extended network. So word percolated out among all these Ruby and SQL people, and some of them backed the magazine.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Interesting. If I remember correctly, you did most (all?) of the design and coding work on Lumn’s website, and you’re also the primary (only?) person handling the design and layout of the print issue, correct? How important is it for poets to become literate in new technologies? Is sitting in a garret and just pouring all your effort into writing and writing alone even a viable method anymore?
“We should know how to cook and understand how combustion engines work and keep up with politics and have hobbies. It’s healthy for the poet and the poetry, both.”
Victoria Brockmeier: All and only, yes, dove|tail is a one-woman show. I did have a friend who works for Monotype help me pick out fonts, but I did all the page layout entirely on my own, and I had a digital artist friend critique my cover design. Website is 100% me (and needs a rebuild now, but that will get done when it gets done). I think people have to be literate in contemporary technologies—let’s stop calling them “new,” at this point. And writers, as a subset of people, yeah, we should at least be able to understand what the web can and can’t do in order to direct programmers, designers, marketing / social media people, etc., if we can’t do it ourselves.
But I also think that applies to a lot of other things. We should know how to cook and understand how combustion engines work and keep up with politics and have hobbies. It’s healthy for the poet and the poetry, both.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: We don’t get a lot of that in the popular conception of the poet. I mean, Wallace Stevens was a lawyer, T.S. Eliot was a banker,William Carlos Williams spent most of his time practicing medicine, andBukowski was a mailman of all things, but by and large there’s something in the popular consciousness (and in the consciousness of many aspiring poets) that poetry and poetry alone is the business of poets.
Victoria Brockmeier: Yeah, it irritates the crap out of me. As a teacher and as a writer, just, argh, stop that. I hate, for example, having to try to explain what I do to people, at this very basic level. They have no clue what poetry even is, let alone what writing it involves, as far as lifestyle goes or psychologically. It wears me out.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: What does it involve in terms of lifestyle and psychological costs?
Victoria Brockmeier: Oy, I could go on about that for a while. I’ll try to curb myself, though…
Psychologically, we are not often very happy people. I mean, we’re not all end-stage Plath, either, but truthfully, poetry means being vulnerable to the world. “Emotionally alive and morally sensitive.” Not sensitive as in wimpy, or vulnerable as in wimpy; it’s heightened perception, and valuing your perceptions more, and risking losing yourself.
Lifestylewise, we suck at time, both with deadlines and with daily schedules. Poetry readings reliably start at least half an hour late; during my MFA, I think, I picked up calling that Poet Standard Time. If I’m only twenty minutes late for something, I’m actually early. Academia will tolerate that in tenured professors, but not in the rest of us, and the world at large is not into people who are constantly losing track of time. We’re bad in relationships in the way that most creative, driven people end up being; the work matters, often more than one’s own health, almost always more than being financially stable, and sometimes more than one’s partner. We’re self-centered in the sense of finding ourselves interesting (and usually very upsetting)—not that we think we’re super hot shit, so much (although, hey, some of us do)—but we tend to ruminate over our pasts and our problems and our favorite foods and favorite painters and pet peeves quite a bit. Not the most other-directed mode of communication.
“Most of my most eye-poppingly sad, angry, violent, broken, insert-your-traumatized-adjective-here poems were a riot to write.”
And, at bottom, most of us are broke, which is a significant stressor. I’ve had a lot of friendships fall apart because I was always so low on cash that I could only do anything if the other person / people wanted to cover me, and I’ve traded that story with a lot of poet friends and colleagues to a chorus of, “god, I know, it’s so horrible.” In fact, we’re broke, and we know we will never be famous in our lifetimes, won’t be particularly valued or even comprehended well. None of that is fun to wake up with every day.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Bleak.
Victoria Brockmeier: I think if you took just about any major life choice and asked, “what are the costs,” just that, you’d end up with a bleak picture. The least damaging path you could take would be some no-resistance, no-effort, no-risk life, and you’d pay for that with your spirit. That has to be at least as bleak.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Very true. So what are the rewards of writing poetry?
Victoria Brockmeier: Poetry does things no other human activity can match. It lets us talk about world-shattering, inescapable experiences; it does so in ways that retain all that magnitude, but that, at the same time, give it to us to grasp, rather than letting it overwhelm us. Donne’s poems on death, Shakespeare’s on time, Shelley’s on grief, Bishop’s on the madness of one person trying to relate to another, Dickinson’s on all of the above and more. Plus, it’s just really, really, really fun. And it’s a peculiarly affecting kind of fun, somehow serious. I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s one of the main things I love about both reading and writing poetry—it unearths things in enjoyably bizarre ways.
Most of my most eye-poppingly sad, angry, violent, broken, insert-your-traumatized-adjective-here poems were a riot to write. I’m bopping around my apartment, striking kung-fu poses at my cats and grinning, while I’m writing some poem about losing my mind, or killing god, or some equally messed up thing. But it’s funny. “Oh, man,” I say, generally out loud, “I would totally babble in shitty Latin if I lost it, I gotta put some Latin in here.” Etc.
And actually, I think that dimension might be one of the primary ways poetry lets us handle these intense, otherwise inexpressible experiences. Freud was right about jokes, that they let us speak something and disavow it in the same moment, and poetry, I think, might operate in the same way.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Wow. If writing poetry involves this dis / avowal of sad / angry / violent / broken stuff, what does the reading do? Obviously it’s never going to be as intense to read as to write—right?—but at the same time it’s worth reading. Is it a similar dynamic, or a different one altogether?
Victoria Brockmeier: They’re very similar for me. I can’t speak for everyone, but definitely, for me, reading and writing feel quite similar. I lose track of time, I lose track of myself, I get to play with these things and experience them… without risk, I suppose.
At this point, my poetry’s gotten weird enough, and my process has gotten intuitive enough, that I often have passages of my own writing that I have to come back to and read, figure out, just the way one does with some other writer’s work, in order to understand it well enough to work on it more.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: How did you approach the work you put together for Lumn? What was that reading process like?
Victoria Brockmeier: This issue was about half solicitations and half transom material. I wrote a ton of publishing poets whose work I love, got work from some of them and really nice notes back from others, and then when I had a couple definitely on board, I started sending out calls to CRWROPPS, emailing friends and asking them to pass it on to their friends from grad school, etc. Listed the magazine on Duotrope and Litline and wherever else I could find.
With the material I got from total unknowns, I don’t know; I read in batches of 10-15 sets of poems, took the ones I really liked, got into some editing and other discussions with writers of ones I liked but not completely, and sent hopefully pleasant rejection notes to the rest. Pretty much the same thing I did for Pleiades, years ago, just without getting all irritated at the editors above me for disagreeing with me.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: I was actually surprised to see that Lumn, unlike a lot of the more selective journals, has an open submissions page. Can readers submit at any time, or do you have reading periods?
Victoria Brockmeier: Any time, year-round. Once I get one issue set, I just start reading for the next, so I’m already going through work for issue 1.2, due out in the fall. Maybe some day my pages will be in such demand that I can shut down for months at a time, but that’s a ways out.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: When can we expect to see issue 1.1?
Victoria Brockmeier: Something like two to four weeks from now. It could have been almost immediate once Amazon deposited the Kickstarter money in my account, but now I’m moving this month, so everything’s going to get pushed back a bit. The only thing I actually have left to do is to adjust a few spaces in one of Nate Mackey’s poems, which I keep meaning to do and keep only remembering when I’m not at my computer.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: When you funded the first issue via Kickstarter, some of the pledge incentives included letterpress bookmarks and broadsides, and, at higher levels, tarot readings. I’m not used to seeing these as pledge incentives—at least, not the readings. What prompted that?
Victoria Brockmeier: I worked as a professional (so to speak) tarot reader as an undergrad. My dad bought me my first deck when I was twelve, and by nineteen I was showing up at psychic fairs and making several hundred dollars a day. (This was in a long-ago golden age before psychic fairs got legit and started asking you to sign up with business information weeks in advance.) I’ve pledged to Kickstarters where the project head was offering some kind of personal service—custom cartoon, for example—and the main things I could do for people at a distance would be working with them on their poetry, which was an obvious fit, and tarot. I put it up there without thinking it would be very popular, but a number of people picked them! So now I have to bone up my fortunetelling skills again in order to provide said service. But I’m currently planning for my third book of poems to be an extended riff on tarot, so that actually just folds back into my writing.
I want a grant that will pay me to set up a fortunetelling table in the French Quarter for the spring or something. It’s totally research.
“I have a lot of respect for creative modes that intervene in the world, that treat it as malleable. That’s the soul of progressive ethics, directed at concrete activity.”
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Totally.
Victoria Brockmeier: The letterpress stuff is a different kind of fortuitous deal. Last fall, another first-semester adjunct at Buffalo State College, one of the schools where I teach, emailed me out of nowhere, saying that he was a printmaker looking for people to collaborate with and asking if I was interested. He turned out to be just super, really talented, lots of aesthetic things in common, so we’ve been working up some projects together. This also gives me access to the school’s printing equipment for free, and a person to teach me how to use it. A number of my fellow Ph.D. candidates at UB did letterpress work while they were students, and I helped them do some printing but never got my own projects together. It’s something I’d wanted to get into more fully for a while.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Why? What’s appealing about that kind of design?
“Publishing means publicizing things. That’s what I see as the difference between being a publisher and just being a printer.”
Victoria Brockmeier: Oh, so so so many things. I like the tactility of hand-printing. Even on fairly thin paper, you can feel the letters, their precise shapes pushed into the paper. You can feel the ink as a different texture. The paper itself—especially now that hand-printing is a kind of coterie craft, no longer the dominant technology for mass media—is usually gorgeous to touch and hold.
Probably largely because both my parents are very capable DIY types, I do a lot of crafting and gardening and home improvement, and I have a lot of respect for creative modes that intervene in the world, that treat it as malleable. That’s the soul of progressive ethics, directed at concrete activity.
So I enjoy the work, at several levels. And I do like the funny irony that technologies like movable type were invented for mass-producing texts, and now it’s this obscure, fairly arcane, back-to-roots, small-scale activity.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Letterpresses are the fixie bikes of literature.
Victoria Brockmeier: And the home brewing of literature. And the lomography.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: But like, if you put a fake-distressed cover on Lumn I’m going to call you out as the hipstamatic of literature
Victoria Brockmeier: Man, two years ago, every damn shitty nobody press at AWP had faux letterpress covers. I should have taken pics, you would not have believed the proliferation of offset printing of block-color designs on kraft covers. But. . . I don’t know, I kind of am one of those people, myself, and so are a lot of my friends. For pete’s sake, I’m a knitter, and the printmaker has Bjork on vinyl.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Trendy. Speaking of trends, at the risk of irritating the crap out of you again—
Victoria Brockmeier: TREND ME.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: —at the mode of writers and readers—how important is social media? Do poets need to use social media? We’re hearing more and more that writers need to be their own publicists, their own promoters—there’s no room left in editorial budgets for a book tour, and for a lot of small publishers it’s an expectation—stated or not—that their writers will use twitter, facebook, etc., to advertise their work, even if the writer in question previously didn’t use those platforms at all. What’s your take on this, as a writer and editor?
Victoria Brockmeier: I have two takes, one as a writer and a completely different one as an editor.
As a writer, I do virtually nothing to promote my own work. I hate it, I find it stressful and depressing, I don’t think I’m good at it and I wouldn’t even want to be. I have a pretty ambivalent relationship to publishing generally, because I feel like… it’s gross that anyone can just go and read my poor abused poems. I can’t explain it any other way; I just think it’s gross. If it weren’t for my career needs, I don’t think I’d even try to publish things anymore. I’d just send poems to my friends and try to get them to tell me they liked them. That part, I like—people I know and like enjoying my work and finding it interesting. The rest, I’ve ended up disliking thoroughly.
As an editor, though—you saw me doing this through the Kickstarter—I’m all over twitter and facebook and tumblr and emails, coordinating my messages so they hew to the same central point without (hopefully) collapsing to mere repetitiveness, talking up the magazine and its poets everywhere and everywhen I could.
That’s what I see as the difference between being a publisher and just being a printer. Publishing means publicizing things—and I love every poem I’ve taken. I mean it purely and happily when I tell people they’ll dig the issue. I like the poets, too, and I love doing things for them, in whatever small way I can. So as an editor, I’m a huge fan of social media, and I think editors / publishers generally have to get on that, and learn to use it fluently, comfortably, and powerfully.
Whether writers should promote through those platforms, I guess, is a slightly different question than the one you asked. I roll my eyes every time one of my writer friends posts yet another publication announcement to facebook, though. I think when you’re pushing the cart for yourself, you start to look disingenuous very quickly.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Disingenuous is putting it mildly.
Victoria Brockmeier: I’m, uh, attempting to think positively? “Putting lipstick on a pig” is, I’m pretty sure, the appropriate phrase.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Well, let’s keep it positive, then—
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Okay, mental image, thank you—
Victoria Brockmeier: You’re welcome. I try.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: How can readers subscribe to Lumn?
Victoria Brockmeier: I have a subscription page up on the website, but my PayPal buttons have mysteriously stopped working. I probably won’t get a chance to go in and figure out the problem until I’m moved and more or less settled in to my new place, so it’ll be a couple weeks. In the meantime, you can email me and I will very happily invoice you through PayPal. Single copies are $9 for print and $3 for the .pdf, and a full year is $15 in print or $5 in .pdf.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: I look forward to reading the first issue! Thanks for talking to me, Victoria.
Victoria Brockmeier: Of course. Thanks for letting me!
DWELL IN POSSIBILITY, FOLKS!