A Conversation with Poetry Co-Editor Hannah Beresford
Lauren Hilger: What is your earliest memory of working with NT poems?
Hannah Beresford: My first submission period with NT, I printed all of the submissions. It was so extra. T Kira literally said, “This is so extra.” What experience I had of an editorial nature was in workshops, and I’d only been in workshops where we distributed hard copies and marked them up by hand. I didn’t know how to get in that mode, to really sink into a poem, through a computer screen. I still feel that way, but am learning restraint.
I am often surprised by how much being an editor–getting behind the scenes of submittable–does not buffer me from the anxiety of submitting, even despite my better judgment. There is so much work we love and have to pass on. Every journal says that, but it really is true! And yet, when those rejects come in my inbox, I lose that context–I feel small again. Does being an editor help you field the trials of being a poet? And if so, help, tell me how!
LH: Hah! I have a perverse love for the admin of submitting. I try to maintain the same amount of submissions out at any time. I'm always shocked to receive a personal note or nice rejection, though. It's the moment that breaks (with a human chord) the robotic process I want it to be.
LH: How do you feel about the old adage that one has to read the lit mag before submitting?
HB: Sure! In a yes or no sense. Is it a venue for my work, or maybe not so much? If you’re unsure, what have you to lose (unless they charge submission fees)? But, I wouldn’t advise writing toward an aesthetic with a particular venue in mind.
LH: I’m wondering, how do you recognize in your own reading that you are gravitating toward a poem?
HB: This is usually a sensory response. My reading or mind’s eye is saturated by a color. That leaves the most lasting impression on me. Then, I experience the poem and its color in a tactile or corporeal way. The metronomic organs have a lot to do with how I experience creative work. Breath, heart rate. And secondarily, the reactive organs. A poem that stays in my mind hasn’t transcended for me. I had a student who would yell “goosies!” when she loved a poem in workshop. We talk about that a lot—whatever you call it. Goosebumps, most often. I don’t know what it is from a scientific standpoint, but when I feel that, I think it’s a response without an outlet. Maybe because it’s a response to something imaginary, or maybe because it’s a response that feels indeterminable, unresolvable. Empathy is unresolvable. Anxiety, fear, desire. Poetry is corporeal, at its genesis, poetry is an art form of and through the body. We experience it mostly on the page now. Maybe I like a poem that knows its roots are in bodies. For a moment it activates and occupies me from some ancient lineage. I’m a grounding rod, and then it’s gone again. Then, right there, is a particular weightlessness. Maybe the relief of feeling hyper-embodied registers like an instant disembodiment. The poem is super-humanizing, then exalting. Yeah, goosies!
LH: How soon do you know a piece is asking for you to take it seriously?
HB: In short, it’s a matter of subversion. When a piece continually defies my expectation, I feel most provided for. I hardly ever want to know where I’m going. I want to surrender to the lead, but predictabilities will keep me engaging with the work in a mechanical way. I don’t think a reader can help that; when you see tracks, you follow them. When I feel sure that I can’t get where the piece is going any faster than it will take me there, I’ll resign to the line, or the word, or the page. I want to be humbled, to feel overthrown.
HB: What is a first poem that moved you, and how has your reception changed over the years?
LH: Bruce Weigl’s "What Saves Us" felt like it had slipped some message under the door for me. As a Catholic kid reading this poem, I kind of fell asleep midway through and thought "yea yea yea okay I know where we're going with this." The end then knocked me out. It still does, in fact, I never remember the end when I bring this poem to mind. I remember the girl, her skirt, the religiosity, but I forget what made me love it: that spooky, unanswerable end!
Tell me, how does working as an editor across genre and collections aid in your curating of individual poems as units?
HB: I know it isn’t fashionable to prescribe to genre, and I get that. I’m on board. I don’t think there are genre specific limitations. But it would be untrue to say that there are not strengths specific to the differences between how I experience most poems and most prose. (Here, I am permitting an assumption that, more often than not, a prose work exceeds a poetical work in length or volume or time attended to it, per unit.) For example: I love a poem that knows where its ground is but levitates above it. I love that tension, I love that defiance. There is definition, a contour, in the refusal to anchor. To what extent is that kind of suspension above, or resistance to, a grounding plane sustainable in book-length prose? I won’t answer that question. I don’t know! Anything can be done. So, to your question, the more I read and edit and learn across genres, the more I look at a poem and think: here’s an opportunity! I can be pressed to spend more time in this, I can be asked more easily to re-read, I can have more questions in the end. I’m here for it—give me stratums, and coding, and metaphor, give me words to learn and research to be done. A treasure hunt, a Russian doll, the onion—all the clichés. Someone has committed, there’s time to be spent!
As an addendum here, it would be negligent to disregard sonics. To me, the sonic quality of a piece overlays or underpins any and every other decision the writer makes. It is a constant accompaniment. It informs everything, but it precludes nothing. Should prose by its nature, regardless of volume or length, be held to any lesser standard of intentionality of sonics than poetry is? Intentionality is key. Should all prose be harmonious, undulating, lyrical, sonorous, or hypotactic? Should all poetry? I want to feel assured that the sonics of a work were a choice; purposeful. Discordance can inform or reinforce meaning or character. Redundancy, imbalance—too. And sometimes, yes, musicality is affecting.
HB: You and I have talked a lot over the years about poetry’s reception in the popular-ish culture. This AWP we talked more specifically about poetry’s reception in the literary culture. If you could speak to any one misconception or have any one thing known about poetry–whether to the greater public, or even amongst writers–what would it be?
LH: Poetry threatens everything I think I know sometimes too! And that's okay! Something I say at the beginning of every new class I teach is "you don't have to apologize for not knowing anything about poetry, not being a poet, or hating poetry. You don't have to apologize for being a poet. There is no difference! We're all encountering it together!"
How have you sensed NT has evolved or changed?
HB: Maybe it is not so much that we have changed, but our opportunities have broadened. In the beginning, I felt a strong sense of joining the collective of a brilliant masthead. Of course, that is still true—the honor of my life. But more and more, I see NT becoming something of its own as well. More folks have heard of NT and so our slush is more and more dynamic and, honestly, stacked. It’s hit after hit. Our reach as a journal exceeds our individual orbits more and more. There are so many talented people out there. I feel lucky that NT is on the radar of all of our submitters, and more of them every year.
What did you expect when you came on board with NT at its very inception? What did NT mean to you then, and what does it mean to you now?
LH: I met our founding EIC T Kira at MacDowell and first heard about the magazine over breakfast one morning. After I was offered the position, I remember hoping she'd trust me and that I could do a good job. Almost a decade in, I still want to just do as much as I can. Learning from and connecting with contributors means everything to me.
What is your hope for NT's future?
HB: I love the young writers and poets prizes so much. I feel like that’s where my heart is. The young poets blew us away! I’d love to see NT grow more on a community level; programming and initiatives that extend beyond the literary world. An inclusive point of accessibility for reading and writing.
[No Tokens cakes along with Poetry Co-Editors Lauren Hilger & Hannah Beresford]