As one acquainted with the news cycle, I have found that despair generates an ultra-high magnetic field attracting me toward it. But working on this year’s Stephen Dunn Prize and compiling the poetry for this summer issue—my first time for both tasks as the new poetry editor—proved to be an equal and opposite force repelling those blues.
For the past decade or so, I’ve often thought that we live in one of the most fertile and potent eras of American poetry. I would be shocked if the purveyors of Big Data could gin up statistics to refute my sense that more and more different kinds of people are writing more and more different kinds of poetry than at any other time in the nation’s literary history. Reading poems for the contests and for this issue only strengthened this belief. The poems I read these days buoy me up and make me optimistic even as I feel the pull of despair. At every turn, I see a rich panoply of poets follow Robert Hayden’s instruction to “go on struggling to be human, / though monsters of abstraction / police and threaten us.”
Fine examples of this struggling appeared among the finalists and semi-finalists for the Dunn Prize, which Terrance Hayes kindly judged for us this year. Ultimately, he chose as the winner Sara Rivera’s bilingual powerhouse “The Blue Mimes/ Los mimos azules,” calling the poem “an example of structural, emotional and linguistic rigor.” The strengths are immediately evident: the marvelous couplets arrive with a combination of elegant form and sparkling content. The intimacy of the insights evolves and deepens across the poem’s prismatic reflections. The poet writes of in-between zones, windows, entrapments and tells us ‘Memory is every side of you.’ “The Blue Mimes / Los mimos azules” braids its thinking and feeling in a manner that is not simply bilingual: image and tone constitute additional expressions of meaning. This poem’s meditative intensities are cultural, personal, poly-vocal, and unforgettable. This is a poet of grace and muscle.”
As runner-up Hayes chose Celeste Schantz’s “At the Department of Social Services,” which he commended for the way it “casually explodes Ezra Pound’s well-known poem. The core ‘observe and report’ perspective may be inspired by Pound’s imagist poetics, but this poet infuses the imagery with empathy, immediacy, and color. The final breaking bough resonates powerfully as metaphor and image.”
I will borrow from Hayes and say that meditative intensity and immediacy are hallmarks of the poems throughout this issue. This is particularly the case of the four poems we feature here from Ellen Hagan. Her poems exemplify the refusal to be silenced and the keep-the-blues-from-off-my-doorstep strut that I find myself admiring in so many poems these days. Hagan uses urgent, muscular language to affirm femininity and humanity in their many dimensions. I’ve rarely encountered poems more necessary than these.
In Hagan’s poem “Lady in the streets, but a freak in bed,” the speaker claims: “I’m gut-wrenching. Wrecking all / the systems you create to tame me up, pose & poise me down to nothing.” I will let that stand as the statement of poetics for this issue and those to come. Enjoy!