I spent 12 years as an editor at Kestrel, most of those serving as co-editor with Mary Stewart. We raised the profile of a small, little-known regional journal and left it a journal that was known not only nationally but internationally. Keeping true to the concept of featuring West Virginia’s writers and artists in every issue, we certainly did publish writers like Jayne Anne Phillips, Irene McKinney, James Harms, Marc Harshman, Lee Maynard, Ann Pancake, Rita Mae Reese, A.E. Stringer, and others, but we were able to place that regional work alongside efforts from the best writers in the world. A short list includes Seamus Heaney, Maxine Kumin, Lucille Clifton, Gabriela Mistral, Michael Harper, Natasha Trethewey, Stephen Dunn, Gerald Stern, Michael Waters, Paul Muldoon, David St. John, William Heyen, Carl Phillips, Robin Hemley, Kim Addonizio, Carol Frost, Medbh McGuckian, Jean Valentine, Eamon Grennan, David Wojahn, Marilyn Hacker, Terrance Hayes, Heather McHugh, and, yes, Bob Hicok, who joins us this month for an interview.
It was, of course, an honor and a pleasure to be able to publish the likes of them, but—yes, it sounds like an editor’s cliché, even if it’s true—the greatest pleasure, for me, was finding gems in the slush pile, especially when those gems came from folks of whom I’d never heard. These were often young, fascinating poets, mostly without books, and it gave me hope for the future of United States poetry to find such fine work lurking there.
But all good things come to an end, and after Mary was, for some lame reason, let go from Fairmont State (where Kestrel was founded and remains to this day), it was made clear to me that they wanted me gone, too, so that it might be placed in the hands of folks who actually worked at Fairmont. That made sense to me. They’re doing a good job. Still, I continue to find it hurtful, though, that the school never acknowledged my hard work over those 12 years, the Pushcart Prize we won for Lucille Clifton’s haunting poem, “jasper tx 1988” (we had to share the prize with Ploughshares—long story), the recognition I helped the school to achieve. But now that’s water under the bridge, and that’s academia, folks. It eats its young.
So, I thought that was it for my editing career. And—other than the volume of essays on Jean Valentine’s work I ended up co-editing with Kazim Ali—that WOULD have been the end of it, too, but for one Ken Robidoux. Now, here we are at the start of year eight of A Poetry Congeries. Those of you who have been along for the ride know the deal, I guess. One thing that made those years at Kestrel so grand was that I pretty much got my way as far as content went. Mary and I did go over the choices, but I can’t remember ever not getting my way, especially when it came to the poems. I couldn’t/wouldn’t deal with the editing by committee approach employed by many journals. I like the stamp of a single editor on a journal.
Early on, Ken and I had a disagreement and things got pretty heated. I nearly quit. Ken—a consummate professional, good guy and all—accused me of not being a team player, and he was right. I told him that I never CLAIMED to be a team player. So there. But, as Neil Young noted, while introducing Stephen Stills on the 1971 4Way Street live album, "We've had our ups and downs, but we're still playing together." Good thing for everbody. It was my idea to create a space that would feature the work of a small handful of poets each month, and no poet would be published more than once. Ever. Some told me that I couldn’t sustain such a thing. They said I would run out of poets. They were wrong. Really wrong.
At the start of my twentieth year of this sort of work, at the start of year 8 of this online thing, I’m proud of A Poetry Congeries. Many of the poets I listed above have also appeared in the Congeries. To that list I can add more stellar names: Claudia Emerson, Alicia Ostriker, Denise Duhamel, Tony Hoagland, Sherman Alexie, Carl Dennis, Jake Adam York, Michael Collier, Stan Plumly, David Kirby, Kimiko Hahn, Mark Jarman, Dave Smith, Rae Armantrout, Robert Morgan, Fanny Howe, John Burnside, Alice Notley, Campbell McGrath, Jericho Brown, Haki Madhubuti, Chana Bloch, Robin Becker, David Baker, Alberto Rios, Allison Hedge Coke, Tomas Salamun, Dorianne Laux, Brian Turner, Donald Revell, and so many others. Again, I am most pleased by the folks I was able to find at the start of their careers. There are so many amazing poets out there—young and old. We live in the best time for poetry ever. Ever! I believe that. And I believe that A Poetry Congeries can stand with the very best outlets for poetry in the effin world.
I can’t say how much longer I can do this. It’s a lot of work and, at 55, I’m starting to feel like I need to spend more time on my own poetry. But who knows? I’ve said that before and here I am. I guess I love this stuff. So, those who have been along for the full ride, I salute you and think the world of you. 19 years: whodathunkit? For those who know me only for A Poetry Congeries, I love you, too. Some of you were babies when I started. Ken, thanks for the opportunity. I’m still not a team player, and I can be kinda surly, but it’s all in a sorta endearing kind of way, no? Okay, in the words of our esteemed Editor-in-Chief, let’s kick this pig and see what it’ll do.