Guest Blog Post, Bruce Cohen: Why I Read Poems

Bruce CohenThere are illusive, mysterious, hard to pin down ideas skirting away from us, on the periphery of understanding that cannot be expressed in prose, so next to sideways-glance silence, poetry is the best alternative. When I experience language in a way that forces me to witness disturbing aspects of the world or calms me in the undisturbed limbo outside of all else, or provides me with an insightful glimpse into myself, that insists that I consider the nature of life, I know I’m in the swirling Dust Devil of a real poem. I freely admit, my psychology is such that I am more comfortable being uncomfortable and vice versa as though the two were different, and perhaps they are, because poetry is always making finer and finer paradoxical distinctions. The world is infinitely more complicated and complex and unknowable than we are able to comprehend or articulate, so in those rare moments when I am darkly honest enough, with eyes that are not delusional, poetry is the linguistic vehicle by which I arrive at those almost impossible to grasp fleeting notions, emotions, psychological dilemmas, and vacancies of the heart. There is so much my intellect cannot solve and I am constantly in a state of awe.

I am curious how other people live; I’ve always assumed they are privy to some secret that I am excluded from. For me it is not an illogical leap to say I have no interest in poetry that I understand completely on the first reading, but it must quietly insist that I come back. It must be intellectually intriguing, be flirtatious, politely demanding. Allegedly, there are huge portions of our brains that go unused, untapped, and those are the hemispheres where poetry burrows, reproduces, creates its own microscopic civilizations and builds secret tree forts. Its contains its own logic and laws, both scientific and social, are designed by the citizens of poetry who are so diverse no two are alike, like proverbial snowflakes, but like aliens on a secret mission to earth, we recognize each other but rarely acknowledge one another. That’s why, sometimes, a stranger will offer to buy you a drink in a bar with no apparent ulterior motive. Naturally poetry has its own lingo and the buildings are often invisible and the landscapes change directions according to the seasons (we like to stare at eclipses without cardboard boxes), and the trees go by their first names, and their leaves change color on whim and there are always peepholes in fences and there is virtually no distinction between dreams and objective reality and we can paint with our eyes, our X-Ray eyes, and see what others cannot. Gravity is not a requirement!

What is so euphonious about echoes of sound? Does rhyme make a statement feel truer? Is truth more musical than lies? Is, as I think Frost said, the iamb the voice of God? If you’re reading this you are likely a serious reader of poetry. So, if you were to construct an anthology of your top 20 favorite poems, what would your choices say about you? If someone put a metaphorical gun to your head and demanded you shrink your list to 10, then five, then that solitary one, what would it be, and what would that one poem say about you, your esthetics, your artistic sensibility, who you are in your essence? How does that one poem define you? Perhaps you cannot be defined by one poem. Is your inner self indistinguishable from the poem, as though your hidden voice wrote it? Do you simply recognize yourself in the poem? Are you relieved there’s another human being in the world who feels as out of place as you? Is the poem so like you or so unlike you? Is it something you believe you could have written or something so beyond your artistic ability you could compose for infinity and never come up with that perfect turn of phrase, the way the poet captured that difficult to capture…what is it? My friend says poetry solves everything and I’d like to believe that that’s true. But if poetry is the solution, what is the dilemma? Why do we believe life is so difficult or is life that difficult? Do we even know the right questions? Of course there are horrible atrocities that have made the most religious among us question the very existence of God. Is our world arbitrary or is there some mysterious pattern we are simply not intelligent enough to understand? How does one become comfortable in a world where, clearly, goodness does not always prevail?

The world is so selfish nobody gets to live forever. Is the moment in the poem you love the timelessness, the sense that you can suspend time, that instant when you feel on the verge of understanding the secret to eternal life? But I like poems that make me smirk! So many poems fall short, so short. Maybe they shouldn’t have been read by anyone other than the person writing the poem. Maybe they shouldn’t have even been written. But writing a poem, even a failed poem, makes us feel more included in the world, more in control of our destinies. I hate to admit this, but most of the poems I read in literary journals, and I read a fair amount, leave me wondering what the editor saw in this poem. A poem that falls short for me is an insult and an assault and a salt in the wound of my artistic sensibility. I may as well watch reruns of my favorite sitcoms. I go to poetry to be surprised, awakened if you will, and shocked out of myself so I can find myself. I like poems smarter than I am. I am infinitely curious about the world and would love to understand it a little better. I want to feel like the first one to arrive at a party, before the host is ready, and be the last one to leave, when the hostess is pleading with me, with only a look, to please go home. She’s tired and has a hectic day tomorrow. She might say something she regrets, something she wishes she could take back. Yes, I have worn out my welcome. We are sitting there staring at one another. Her husband is starting to do the dishes, clanging the pots. I have ignored all the subtle and not so subtle clues. So, we open a fresh bottle of wine and begin to tell our life stories, the privately exclusive things we think, that which we have never told anyone before. Those are the poems I like: becoming comfortable in the discomfort, revealing something utterly untapped, never spoken before.

My favorite writers have a distinctive, unmistakably individual voice. I often harp on that point to students, but I have begun to think about voice more in terms of the way writers esoterically think before they censor themselves with the written word. That’s where the poem begins and ultimately where it exists. Aside from the fact that we suffer from odd, egocentric logic, and our minds jump or bounce or leap based on associative ideas and experiences, interweaving with our emotional distress or glee, or suffering, or resignation, what is going on in our lives and our own little language packets, the real problem is by the time a poet writes what she thinks, by the time her thoughts become voice, she had edited, filtered, altered, adjusted her language to be safer, more politically correct, not as dark or jarring. How can the intellectually inoffensive be more interesting or approach the truth? Please don’t confuse this idea with good manners. I am not suggesting you act impolite, walk up to an obese man in Wal-Mart and tell him he’s fat. A: he knows it. B: it’s mean. Why do we shy away from that which makes the potential reader uncomfortable? In a nutshell, we don’t want our readers to think badly of us, that we are cruel, or bigoted, or lazy, or ignorant. Please plug in any negative adjective that you would like. We seek safety when art should make us pose the most difficult questions we only ask ourselves when we wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. As Jon Anderson, one of my teachers and a close friend said in his wonderful tongue-in-cheek poem—“The Secret of Poetry is Cruelty.” A poem cannot be so shy that it will not undress in front of you, but must be modest enough that it conceals something it will never share, only imply. A poem should contain an enormous Yes that spills & multiplies. And an understated No. Maybe good poem-ing should be so invisible that the reader sees only the world within the poem because we all know being in a state of wonder is more authentic than being in a state of knowing and only assholes claim to exist in the world of doubtlessness. I am perpetually unsure and the most intelligent among us are, undoubtedly, comfortable with ambiguity!

Meet the Review Crew: Bri Perkins


Behind every blog is a blogger. They are the unspoken authors of the internet that filter in a constant stream of news into your RSS Feed. As a Social Networking Coordinator for Superstition Review, Bri Perkins has learned first-hand just how challenging that job can be.

Working with a small team, Bri helps to maintain and write for the SR blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, which can include everything from interviews with esteemed authors to email correspondence to creating the latest trending topic. A resident night-owl, Bri usually can be seen tweeting in the wee hours of the morning or slumped over a keyboard asleep.

Having never really experienced the editorial process and the inner workings of a publication, Perkins applied to Superstition Review in hopes of getting hands-on experience in the literary world. Since then, her taste and exposure to art, literature, and writing has grown exponentially. Now a fan of Tin House and Ploughshares (and of course SR), she has developed a love of fiction and short stories. Her favorite readings range all the way from J.K. Rowling to Flannery O’Connor to the labels on shampoo bottles.

Bri is quickly approaching the finish-line of her undergraduate degree at ASU. Studying the unique combination of English and Psychology, she found she had a passion for the anatomy and physiology of the body, and in particular, the human brain. After graduation, she is planning to take a gap year to travel and read, which will be something new for a girl that has been barely beyond Arizona state borders. She subsequently plans to attend medical school at Midwestern University where she will study to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine, and ultimately, a neurologist or neurosurgeon. Bri hopes to translate the underlying themes of the liberal arts into the science realm in order to take a more well-rounded approach to healthcare.

Bri is 22 years old and is a Glendale, Arizona native. She loves overcast and rainy days, which are a rarity in the Valley of the Sun. She has no children and no husband, but she keeps the company of four very lovable mutts and one very fluffy kitty. Perkins currently works as a technician (also known as a Genius) at Apple fixing iPods, iPhones, Macs and iPads. She also volunteers as a Research Assistant at ASU’s Cognition and Natural Behavior Laboratory where she is studying the effects of shared space on productivity, and the effects of physical interaction on mental faculty and memory. Bri also works as a Psychology and Writing Tutor with the STEM/TRIO program on the ASU West Campus, which focuses its efforts on providing support for first generation and minority students.

Meet the Interns: Frederick Raehl

Fiction Editor Frederick “Brandon” Raehl is a senior at ASU completing concurrent degrees in Psychology and Literature, Writing, and Film. As well as working in healthcare as a CT Technologist, he plays music, writes screenplays, and develops black and white photographs. After completing his honors thesis in psychology titled, The Effect of Workload on Academic Performance, his time is now devoted towards writing. Though his current ambitions outside of college are unclear, he intends on using writing in any endeavor he decides to pursue. His favorite all-time book is The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

1. What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?

I am one of the Fiction Editors for Superstition Review. My responsibilities include reviewing work from fiction writers for our upcoming issue. Some of my duties include preparing response emails, reading and voting on what to publish,  and completing weekly tasks and reports. I need to check Blackboard frequently and keep the instructor informed of my progress.

2. Why did you decide to get involved with Superstition Review?

One of my goals of being an undergraduate student is to obtain a diverse and challenging education. Being a part of the Superstition Review allows me to pursue this goal. I love writing, and I’m curious about what goes into the process of  publishing. I enjoy new experiences and new challenges.

3. How do you like to spend your free time?

With the little free time that I have, I enjoy pleasure reading, playing guitar and drums, going to movies, journaling, and playing with my dogs. Most of my time goes towards school and work. I first went to x-ray school, which I do for a living, then decided to go  back to obtain my undergraduate.

4. What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?

I think interview and content editing would be interesting, as well as web design.

5. Describe one of your favorite literary work

I would have to say that Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is still my favorite  book. I first read it in 7th grade and came back to it when I first started college. It feels like every time I read it I discover something else that I love about it. I’ve read many books in my life, but none have ever replaced my long time favorite.

6. What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. No, I’m not an alcoholic, but I really enjoy reading about personal triumphs over adversity. It’s a great read, if anyone is looking for something to pick up.

7. Creatively, what are you currently working on?

I’m beginning to write a screenplay for my capstone course. I’m always writing new music and journaling as well.

8. What inspires you?

I’m inspired by authenticity. When I see something that I know is real and not just something crafted to make money, I’m inspired. I believe that one should be brave enough to create something that comes from within, regardless of what the world will feel about it. When people do what they know is right in their heart instead of what may be right in society’s eyes, I am inspired. Finally, and the most simple, I’m inspired by decency. I love it when I see people working together and treating each other in a civil manner.

9. What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of obtaining a college education with honors. It may seem miniscule to some, but going to college has challenged and changed me in many ways. I believe that if I hadn’t decided to go to ASU after x-ray school, my life would not be as hopeful as it is now. Many people think I’m crazy to go back to school when I already have a decent-paying job. The pay is not the problem. I feel like I’m meant to do something  more with my life than what I’m doing now. I don’t know exactly what that is right now, but going to college has allowed me to investigate this. And I know that my decision to obtain a college degree will help me live a happier life.

10. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I see my life moving forward. I will not be in the career I’m in now. I know this for certain. What I don’t know is what I will be doing. I know that I want a life that allows me to be creative while also benefiting society. I have several ideas that I will investigate. Being successful is important, but more so I would like to find myself in a career that is in tune with my values and I feel passionately about. Who knows where I’ll end up, but I will never stop looking.

Where Are They Now?: Haley Larson

Haley Larson, Poetry Editor for Issue 3, received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology and with a minor in Music from the University of Nebraska. I took some time to catch up with her about her experience and how Superstition Review has helped shaped her future.

 

Superstition Review: Which issue did you work on with Superstition Review and what was your position?

Haley Larson: I worked on Issue 3 of Superstition Review. I was one of two poetry editors that year, and it was quite an opportunity. I had the chance to correspond with some esteemed poets, many of whom I’d admired for some time.

SR: What skills did you take away from the experience?

HL: I owe a lot of my confidence and tenacity to the Superstition Review internship. A huge part of the internship is learning to not only embody but also balance professionalism and confidence. I think such professionalism encompasses a whole mess of other skills: organization, prioritizing, meeting deadlines, even–can I say–eloquence in emails. The confidence translates into so many other outlets, whether this includes applying for graduate programs or submitting one’s own work to a literary journal. Trish was kind enough to grant me a wonderful opportunity to flex these skills at AWP’s most recent conference. I had the chance to be a part of a presenting panel with her and representatives from two other undergraduate literary magazines. She was (is!) a fantastic, generous mentor. The experience continues.

SR: Creatively, what are you currently working on?

HL: I am working on a few different projects, most obsessively, a couple of different series of poetry. I’m trying to explore/exploit some of my background in music and psychology through this, allowing music, sound/silence, communication, and disorder to talk and tangle in my work.

SR: What are some of your career highlights after leaving SR?

HL: I am currently pursuing my MFA degree in poetry at Colorado State University. I’ve had opportunities to teach at CSU, intern with the Colorado Review, and co-curate a student reading series. A few journals have been kind enough to publish a poem or two, even a couple of my reviews. A few colleagues and I are working to start a non-profit organization, The Strophe Project, aimed at forming and facilitating writing communities in underserved populations of Fort Collins. You can learn more at www.thestropheproject.wordpress.com.

Meet the Interns: Madeline Beach, Solicitations Coordinator

Madeline Beach earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from ASU in 2003. She has since returned to ASU, and is now a senior studying English Literature.

Superstition Review: What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?

Madeline Beach: I am currently serving as the Solicitations Coordinator. My major responsibilities include reaching out to writers and artists who have been selected to be solicited to submit previously unpublished work and then I make the received solicited submissions available to the respective editor for review. I also contact bookstores and writing organizations to request that they notify their customers and members of our open submission period.

SR: How did you hear about Superstition Review and what made you decide to get involved?

MB: I first learned about Superstition Review when I took a course led by the journal’s Managing Editor Trish Murphy. She informed the class that there would be an opportunity to participate in the creation of the spring issue and I felt it would be a great chance for me to gain invaluable experience in the publishing field.

SR: What are you hoping to take away from your Superstition Review experience?

MB: I am hoping to gain some of the skills necessary to working as a professional editor. I am in school because I have decided to change careers and I hope that this internship will provide some of the experience I need to be a successful editor.

SR: Describe one of your favorite literary or artistic works.

MB: An author who I recently discovered whose story I felt was very well written is Tammy Delatorre. Her story titled Gifts from my Mother is a cynical coming of age tale that describes the “gifts” a young girl receives from her mother. At night the narrator’s mother leaves her young daughter in the car while she frequents the local bar. The mother brings her daughter the parasols and olives from her drinks at the bar, which the daughter sarcastically remarks as being so thoughtful. I like the feel of the story because it is dark and poignant, telling the short story of a young girl’s experience of her mother.

SR: What are you currently reading?

MB: Unfortunately between working full-time and going to school full-time I don’t have time for any leisure reading.

SR: What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?

MB: I would like to try to be a Fiction or Nonfiction Editor. My goal after graduation is to obtain a career as an editor of written work, so I feel that I would gain experience that closely matched my aspirations.

SR: Do you prefer reading literary magazines online or in print?

MB: I prefer reading literary magazines online because of the availability and accessibility. I have found it is easier to read the work of several different authors when I browse journals that publish online.

SR: Do you write or create art? What are you currently working on?

MB: I am currently writing a series of essays based on the lives of women who have overcome tumultuous family situations in childhood to lead successful lives. The stories are based in reality on people I have known who have life stories that are so extreme they almost seem fictional, which is why I feel they should be told.

SR: What is your favorite mode of relaxation?

MB: My favorite mode of relaxation is somewhat juvenile; I enjoy watching cartoons. In fact, I have never stopped watching cartoons on Saturday mornings because I like the break from conscious thought. I try to keep my love of cartoons a secret because when people find out I generally get teased.

SR: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

MB: I see myself on the East Coast working as an editor. I feel that it is a big dream, but it is what I have in my sights and would like to achieve. I believe if I put in the needed effort I will be able to obtain the career I want.

Spotlight on Haley Larson, by Sarah Dillard

haleylarson_0_0Intern Sarah Dillard, interviews Haley Larson about her experience as a poetry editor for Superstition Review.

Haley Larson is one of the two poetry editors that is interning with Superstition Review this semester. Her background is unique, as she received her Bachelor Degree in Psychology and with a minor in Music from the University of Nebraska. She is currently working on her second bachelor degree in English with a Creative Writing emphasis. Next fall, Haley will be headed to Graduate School to work on her Master’s in Poetry.

With the launch of Issue 3 right around the corner, interns have been busy finishing up tasks and projects. Haley was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to share what her experience has been like with Superstition Review thus far.

Sarah Dillard: What led you to pursue a position with Superstition Review?

Haley Larson: I had ENG 411 with Trish, and she encouraged me to consider it. Having never done anything like this before, I wasn’t originally planning to apply–I didn’t think I’d have the time or experience necessary. It has turned out to be a highlight of my undergrad work. The hands-on experience is invaluable.

SD: What are some of your favorite poets and how do they impact you?

HL: A few poets who I obsessed over at the beginning of my poetry interests include Neruda, e.e. cummings, and Sylvia Plath. Since then, I have had some phenomenal instructors who introduced me to an endless world of great poets: Larry Levis, Mary Oliver, Paul Guest, Kay Ryan, Arthur Sze, Bob Hicok. I think most of these poets impact me by challenging me. Their work urges me to reevaluate what I think poetry is and consider the infinite possibilities of what it can be. Whether they create a form, transform an intangible idea into an image, or turn written language to a musical serenade, they all make me jealous enough to try a little harder.

SD: How would you describe your experience so far with Superstition Review?

HL: This has been an absolute whirlwind! However, I can’t think of a better learning experience for a young writer. Not only do I get to see the up-close and inner workings of the publishing world and its processes, I get to be a part of them. There is an unmatchable sense of accomplishment in having my input considered and progressing toward the launch of what is sure to be a stellar third issue. I have improvised through a few moments, but that’s the unique feature of this applied learning environment–it’s encouraged that we “do” rather than “be told.” I’ve learned to take initiative and scramble when necessary. And I will admit, I’m still the poetry equivalent of star-struck when I get to email back and forth with poets I admire.

SD: What are your responsibilities as one of the Poetry Editors of Superstition Review?

HL: My responsibilities include communicating with our solicited poets, reading and considering submissions that come in, sending acceptance and rejection emails, and a variety of other tasks that present themselves. More generally, I must meet deadlines, keep some sense of organization, and be flexible. I’m looking forward to interviewing Barbara Hamby and David Baker in the coming week. Researching their work and letting my curiosity run a bit is a great opportunity disguised as responsibility.

SD: What do you look for when deciding which poetry submissions to publish? Do you try to stay open minded throughout the process or do your own personal preferences play a role?

HL: Some key things I look for are attention to rhythm and musicality, sentient imagery, and fresh interpretations of language. The capacity to elicit emotion is an obvious element, I think. I look for the ability to experience the poem without having it forced upon me. I definitely try to stay open-minded, but I’m sure that I carry a bit of my own aesthetic into the role. In fact, I hope that my aesthetic continues to evolve throughout this internship. One of the most important things I’ve learned in this position–being part of a publication–is that it’s important to keep our readers in mind.

SD: What are your plans after this semester?

HL: I plan to attend an MFA program in poetry.

SD: What is the most useful piece of advice you would give to future Superstition Review interns?

HL: Jump in and get your hands dirty! Ask questions (I have asked a few hundred since January) but also trust yourself a little. It can be nerve-wracking jumping into a world that you’ve only read about, but everyone is so helpful and supportive.

SD: What do you hope to take away from your experience with Superstition Review?

HL: I hope to take away valuable skills suited to publishing, a more evolved aesthetic, and a sense of confidence and accomplishment. I can’t think of a better way to prepare myself for my professional pursuits in the poetry world.