Wednesday Dec 13

hoppenthaler “There are no secular poems,” Donald Revell insists in my interview with him. I agree; I always have. My own poems often make use of Catholic imagery, but that’s not where the religion resides; rather, when I am lucky and a poem is successful, the holy spirit (for lack of a better term) throbs within every line. The ceremony is in the making, and the prayer, the poem, is the distillation of process. The act of making a poem puts me as close to grace as I’ll probably ever be.

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Revell’s poem “Foxglove” concludes, “We can breathe. We have time. We have plenty of it.”  The irony of that final line fills me today, as I join many other writers in mourning the loss of one of our very finest young editors, Jeanne Leiby, who died on April 19th in a car crash.  Leiby served a term as fiction editor of The Black Warrior Review and later served as editor of The Florida Review.  For the past few years, Leiby served as editor of The Southern Review, one of America’s oldest and consistently compelling journals.  Having been through some rough times, the grand old journal was in need of some new energy, and Leiby supplied it and then some.  Leiby made it a point to actively participate in the editing process, to nurture instead of merely reject, and she was a caller.  If she accepted someone’s work for The Southern Review, she’d call the writer to say so.  In an interview with Shawn Vestal at the blog site Bark, Leiby remarks, “Yes, I call. I call everybody. I call people sometimes to tell them that I’m not accepting their work but that it came really close and I’d like to talk to them about it.”  “The reality of my job,” she continues, “is that I spend a lot of time rejecting things. When something surprises me so much that I want to accept it, I want to commit my time and the time of my staff into making sure it’s perfect, I want to talk to the person behind the words. In the moment of the phone call, I love them, they love me, and we get to celebrate the work.”

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Just a few weeks ago, I received a message from Jeanne, a kind and supportive note to say that one of the poems I had recently submitted had fallen just short of the mark.  There was something about the closure that didn’t feel quite right to her.  She was probably right; the poem comes to an end a bit abruptly, it now seems to me.  Had there been time, I may well have sent a revised version to Jeanne.  I’ve been thinking about the poem since her message, but it’s been a busy semester and we have time, I thought.  I want the poem to be perfect, to be a prayer.  The phone call that never comes is the one, I think, that we remember most.  What’s left is poetry.

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Jeanne Leiby was 46 years old, and she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt when she lost control of her car on a stretch of highway in Baton Rouge.  Buckle Up everyone, please.  I dedicate this month’s Congeries, as I write this on a Good Friday with Easter to come, to Jeanne’s memory.  Write her a prayer; maybe she’ll call.