Announcing The OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry: An Interview with Kathy Fagan

Kathy Fagan is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at The Ohio State University. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Ohio Arts Council and is the author of four books of poetry: The Raft (1985), which won a National Poetry Series Award, MOVING & ST RAGE (1999), which won the Vassar Miller Prize for Poetry, The Charm (2002), and Lip (2009). Currently, she is working on her fifth collection, entitled Sycamore, from which poems have recently appeared in FIELD, Cimarron Review, The Awl, and The Laurel Review.

Kathy is serving as this year’s judge for The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry; and she recently sat down with Poetry Editor Michael Marberry to talk about all things poetry-contest—including how she approaches the responsibility of judging manuscripts, some tips for writers who are putting together a manuscript for the first time, and some writers whom she is currently reading.

Kathy Fagan Photo

Michael Marberry: Kathy! Thanks for taking some time to talk about the upcoming poetry book prize from The Journal and OSU Press. Before we start, here’s a true story: I once helped you and your husband move some heavy furniture, exercise equipment, and whatnot. Take a brief moment, for our readers, to laud my impressive feats of strength on that day.

Kathy Fagan: I believe those feats were iambic feats.

MM: Ha! Yes, that sounds right. I will take that as a compliment, thank you. Speaking of poetry, iambic and otherwise, you’ve written four excellent collections at this point in your writing life; and you’re well on your way toward completing your fifth collection. What advice would you offer to someone else about creating a manuscript?

KF: At this point, I can honestly say that each book demands a different kind of preparation, but my best overall advice to newer poets: Don’t rush. Take your time writing individual poems and getting feedback on them before contemplating a manuscript. Second, in most cases, it’s best for the manuscript to be shorter rather than longer. Include only the poems that still speak to you and that speak most directly to your subject or aesthetic. All that said, I suggest employing a cautious recklessness in the ordering of poems. Making a book is like making a new poem. It should be just as textured, strange, and satisfying. And, like a poem, a manuscript should begin promisingly. What you’ve heard about front-loading your manuscript is true. It works. It sets the tone and anticipates its reception.

MM: That seems like really keen insight. But your response made me wonder about something—particularly about poems that speak directly to a subject or aesthetic. I tend to see that idea at work in lots of contemporary poetry collections—i.e. books with clear, cohesive “parts” and even quite a few collections that follow a singular subject and aesthetic throughout. Just to play devil’s advocate here for moment: Is there a place in poetry today for what we might call a dissonant manuscript—that is, a collection that oscillates wildly, even joyfully, between different subjects and aesthetics? Or are we in an age of the poetry “concept-album,” where every poem in a collection really ought to be consistent, either in its adherence to a similar subject or in its mode of expression?

KF: Great question. Anyone who knows me knows that I nurse a pet-peeve against high-concept anything and love me an old-fashioned “collection” of poems. I am also known to write a wide range of poems myself and to possess, as an editor and a teacher, a pretty eclectic and even catholic taste. But when I say subject or aesthetic, I mean those terms in the context of organizing principles. And one needs to craft a manuscript, “dissonant” as you call it or otherwise, in as careful and layered and interesting a way as one structures a poem. The choice of the first poem, eighth poem, fourth section, final poem, whatever—none of that is random. It’s not consistency that I’m looking for but control and abandon in all the right places—an overriding intelligence that assures me that I’m in for an experience that only this particular book can give me.

MM: That’s very interesting to hear. So . . . with that in mind, who are some of the writers that you’ve been reading and admiring lately and why?

KF: When I was in Brazil this summer, I visited the Portuguese Language Museum—a marvelous place. One exhibit featured the novels of Jorge Amado and, because some of the content in them is sexually explicit, there was one room saturated in red light with peep-show vents in the walls. If you looked through the vents, you could read a sexy passage. It made me wish that we had such a thing here in the States. Anyway, I’m reading Amado in translation right now.

I’m also reading poems by Marosa di Giorgio in translation. And scads of shockingly good work by former students and friends of students with new books: Betsy Wheeler, Letitia Trent, Ida Stewart, Natalie Shapero, Daniel Carter, Allison Davis. I have a stack of books that I’m working through by Noelle Kocot, Amanda Nadelberg, and the wonderful Sabrina Orah Mark.  I’m also reading Mary Ruefle’s essays.

What I admire is a certain shapeliness of image and phrase that can best be described as painfully astute and psychologically adventurous.

MM: This year, you’re judging The OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry.  For our readers who may not know, you have some connections with The Journal, as you were the Poetry Editor here for over 20 years, which I hear is actually something like 100 years in the life of an editor. How did you manage to maintain your writing prowess, your sanity, and your good looks throughout all that? What’s your secret?!

KF: Why thank you, Michael! No wonder you have my job now. I loved editing The Journal, and I made many, many strong and enduring poetry friendships with contributors and student editorial assistants alike during my time there. Those relationships and finding good poems made it all worth the crunch of production and the financial stress. I feel as if Michelle Herman and I did something really important during those years—just as you do now. Editing can be a generous, collaborative, creative, and generative activity.

MM: That’s interesting to hear you talk about editing as a collaborative process. Am I wrong in assuming that you’re not just talking about collaboration among staff-members but also a spirit of collaboration among editors and submitters/contributors as well? And, thinking particularly about the poetry book contest, to what extent do you approach those submitted manuscripts in a similarly collaborative manner? Or, in your mind, is a judge’s job in some way different than an editor’s?

KF: Yes, you’re absolutely right in assuming that the collaboration I’m talking about is between an editor and a writer. To be in a position to steward work into print when it’s not your own work is both utterly selfless and entirely selfish. I mean, the editor gets to say, “Your work slays me, and I have a hunch it will affect others in the same way. Let me put it in my shop window. But it’s my shop window, right, and everybody has to stand in front of it to see this great thing that I found of yours.” Between an editor and reader, too, there’s this wonderful social contract in which the editor says, “Lookit! Lookit! You’re really gonna love this poem I found for you!” I don’t know . . . maybe I need to join a circus, but I love being able to hawk what I find beautiful to people who might not otherwise find it.

Judging is a less intimate activity than editing for me and a heavier responsibility. I’m led toward the ultimate winner by asking questions such as: Is this a manuscript that will most fully round out, enhance, brand, or diversify the OSU Press poetry list? How is it like or unlike the recent winners of the OSU Press / The Journal competition? How is it like and unlike new books that I’ve read in the past year or two? How does this manuscript represent the prevailing aesthetics of The Journal, if at all? Does the world need more poetry collections about this subject or has that trend run its course? How great of an impact will this book have on poetry readers? My choice is about gut-feeling, but it’s also an instinct informed by lots of experience, plus a handful of practical issues.

It’s exquisite to identify those two dozen instantly publishable manuscripts, excruciating to narrow those down to one, and joyous to make the phone call saying, “You win!” I love that part.

For more information about how to submit your full-length poetry collection to the contest during the month of September, please visit the OSU Press website.

Michael Marberry is a graduate of Lipscomb University and the University of Alabama. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Third Coast, Guernica, Linebreak, Passages North, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere. He is the poetry editor of The Journal.