. Perihelion Verbatim ---- Timothy Donnelly 

"It all depends on how you how you define the political."

More Perihelion:

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



Issue 11: The Necessary Eye

Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Melissa Ahart

Sommer Browning

Sarah Busse

devin wayne davis

Karen D'Amato

Yaakov Fichman

Donna Johnson

Vera Kroms

Li Bo

Li Qingzhao

Ander Monson

Christopher Mulrooney


Todd Samuelson

Maria Terrone

Mihai Ursachi

Sophie Wadsworth

G.C. Waldrep

Martha Zweig

Know This:
A Conversation With Boston Review's Timothy Donnelly

Interview by
Joan Houlihan

Timothy, how long have you been with the Boston Review?

For about eight years. My coeditor Mary Jo Bang and I were offered our positions by Josh Cohen in the summer of 1995. Josh was then Boston Review's editor-in-chief; he now co-edits the magazine with Deborah Chasman. He had been looking for someone to take over for our predecessor, Kim Cooper, who was planning to step down at the end of the year. Where Kim finished, we started. The first issue with our names on the masthead came out in February 1996.

You and Mary Jo Bang are billed “equally” on the mast (though you are also in charge of reviews). Does this mean that you both must agree before you publish a poem?

We must both agree to publish it, yes. These days our decisions are made mostly on the phone or by email. Back when we began, though, we were both living in New York (one street away from each other, in fact) and once month or so we'd spend a day together reading through the boxes of unsolicited manuscripts forwarded to us by the office in Cambridge. We'd read through everything they sent us, setting aside any manuscript that held our interest, and then reread together what we had set aside—slowly, carefully, over and over, often aloud. It was a time-consuming process, but we took our positions very seriously, as we still do. It wouldn't be worth it otherwise. Thankfully, our great friendship and mutual respect predated our co-editorship, so the atmosphere in which we met wasn't one of diligence and purpose merely, but also of comfort, good humor and camaraderie, and one in which we felt—as we still feel—completely free to speak our minds about the merits or shortcomings of a given poem, to stumble and make mistakes without penalty, to suffer the visceral into articulation and to do so without anxiety, to question each other's judgments, to pull books from shelves to see who's right, to admit ignorance, to give it a little more time, and to revise our opinions without a shade of misgiving or embarrassment. And this, I think, in addition to the amazing support that we get from the editors and interns in Cambridge, has been the key to our longevity and success as coeditors.

Even though Mary Jo is now on the faculty of Washington University and living in St. Louis, the routine hasn't really changed that much. The office sends half the slush to her and half to me. Whatever one of us sets aside for further consideration gets mailed to the other and we make our final decisions, as I mentioned earlier, on the phone or by email.

Have you and Mary Jo ever had any serious disagreements on a poem? If yes, how did you resolve them? (By serious, I mean one or the other of you felt absolutely passionate about inclusion/exclusion of something).

Our interests and tastes have been similar from the start, and they've developed more or less in tandem, so “serious” disagreements rarely occur. Also I think that we've managed over the years to internalize each other's patterns of judgment, so we can anticipate with some measure of accuracy how the other will respond to a given poem and we can take that into consideration when contemplating the work and what to do with it. Now and then, though, maybe once a year, we will disagree somewhat seriously, but when we do, we talk it through, and usually end up taking the poem. It's better to err on the side of inclusion.

When I read BR's mission statement I get the feeling that the poetry will be “political” but that doesn't seem to be the case—at least, it's not overtly so. Am I missing something? Is there a political aesthetic of some kind at work in your selection process?

It all depends on how you how you define the political. If you assign political value to work that challenges traditional notions of subjectivity and representation, for example, then we publish political poetry. If you think that there's political value to work that testifies to the experience of the marginalized, or that reflects the anxieties and troubles of an age, or that refuses to discount the import of the human imagination, then we publish political poetry. And if you think that there's political value to work that invites the reader to participate actively in the making of meaning, particularly at a time when mass media and advertising leave people dangerously accustomed to linguistic impoverishment and to being told what to think, then we publish political poetry. We're not opposed to poetry that confronts political issues directly (Claudia Rankine's poem in our recent summer issue is a case in point), but the poetry of that kind that comes across our desks very often lacks the complexity that such subject matter demands. Rants and diatribes don't interest us much. The poetry that we're interested in not only sharpens our wits by re-sensitizing us to language's richer and more rambunctious character, but also encourages us to intuit, evaluate, and think for ourselves.

Of your published poems, how many would you estimate come from unsolicited work?

In the beginning, we solicited poems pretty regularly—maybe 20% of what we published in the first ten issues or so had been solicited. We wanted to reinvigorate the poetry (and poetry criticism) in Boston Review—to widen its horizons, broaden its focus—and to accomplish this we really couldn't rely on the slush alone. And naturally we wanted to bring the poetry component of the magazine into harmony with our own evolving interests and tastes, too, so we asked for contributions from poets whose work we had been reading with interest and admiration. We now solicit much less frequently than we did at first. I'd say that as little as 5% of the poems we publish have been solicited. The volume and quality of the slush that we get these days is really so remarkably high, we seldom feel the need to seek work out—it just comes to us. In fact, many of the poets whose work we would want to solicit send us poems without our having to ask. We take that as huge compliment.

While all poetry journals claim they don't really care about the style of poetry as long as it's excellent, this can be very confusing to potential submitters of work because journals obviously have some favorite styles. Can you give us some clues in either your favorite or unfavorite category of styles?

If a journal's “favorite style” is obvious, then I don't see where the confusion comes from, unless people are sending work to journals they haven't really examined. Needless to say, it's a good idea to acquaint yourself with the journals you're sending to. I'll take for granted that my favorite styles are obvious. But if I had to name my least favorite category, it would have to be that of the “realistic” free-verse lyric that commemorates and affixes poignant meaning to what often appears to be an actual event from the author's perfectly integrated American life. To my mind, most work in this vein is the poetry equivalent of a made-for-TV movie. And it isn't the subject matter that I object to so much as the rote movements, canned language and slack rhythms that mark such sentimental reportage—not to mention the halo of irreproachability that surrounds these poems. The living idiom, the tender moment— you'd have to be heartless not to treat such courageous human documents with the utmost respect! I think a similar halo often surrounds radically disruptive, theory-driven work. If it doesn't engage you, then your reading practices must be callow, your critical apparatus hopelessly out of whack, your being wholly programmed by bourgeois ideology.

What are some major turnoffs for you as an editor; for example, confused pronoun references, cliched phrases, incoherence, etc.

Of course I hate cliched phrases—unless their status as cliché is acknowledged, examined, played with. I read poetry as an antidote to the cliché. I also have a longstanding problem with the split infinitive, but I'm in dialog with it. Ditto my resistance to prose poems with both margins justified. I am suspicious of the perfect block of prose—its false authority, its look of journalism. The jaggedness of the right margin is beautiful and tonic to my eye.

What advice do you have for poets wanting to get published in BR?


  • Take a look at the magazine before sending work. It's available online. If you happen to read something in BR that you really like, mention that in your cover letter. Not to prove to us that you've actually read the magazine or to pay a compliment to our editorial prowess, but to give us another glimpse into your particular sensibility. It can't hurt.

  • Send at least three poems but no more than six. The more we read by you, the more likely we'll figure out how to read you—but don't leave us wishing you'd sent less.

  • Don't leave us wishing you hadn't sent at all: Include a SASE. A surprising number of people neglect to, and I end up having to sacrifice my own time, envelopes, and stamps because I can't get myself to throw the whole mess into the recycling bin unanswered. Not without a minor wave of guilt. I shouldn't have to and I can't afford to.

  • I have a preference for work whose seeking after meaning is formally regulated to some degree. A controlled wandering. That old appealing interplay of order and chaos, of indeterminacy with the responsibility of forms—I just can't get enough.

  • And don't be reluctant to shift tones and discursive registers within a poem. Jostle!

  • Someone recently sent me a cover letter thanking me for asking him to send more work. That's not out of the ordinary. But then he admitted to having lied about this in the past, to having pretended that an editor had asked him to send more work, and how nice it was for him, this once, actually to mean it! That's funny, but wrong. Don't.

  • Someone recently wrote complaining that his poems had been rejected “without so much as an initial.” He demanded written comments on his work, in part because he was considering subscribing to the magazine. Generally speaking, you would do well to avoid the pushy rudeness and strange sense of entitlement exhibited by this potential subscriber. If you are neither a kind nor a patient person, at least pretend to be.

  • And why not subscribe? It may not improve your chances of being published, but if you think well enough of a magazine to want to publish your poems in it, maybe you should consider supporting that magazine (if you can afford to). We really bust our asses.

  • Also, if we ask you to try us again in six month, please don't try us again next week.

  • Also, if we've already published you, please wait a year or so before trying us again.

  • Because it's never fun to reject work. I know a lot of poetry editors and the best of them agree. Many of us have our own long histories of rejection. Which is to say that we are well acquainted with the disappointment and discouragement that comes with the rejection slip. To know that we bring this unhappiness—however minor, however passing—into the lives of other people is difficult to take sometimes, and it's only ever partially offset by the pleasure and encouragement we imagine we bring to those whose work we do accept. So try not to take rejection too seriously. Put it in perspective. If rejection pushes you to work harder, work longer, that's great. But don't ever let it get you down or make you doubt yourself or lose confidence in what you're doing. Editors are fallible, moody, tired, and human, and they have limited needs—at BR in particular, we have to turn away armloads of fine work because we can only publish about 40 poems a year. That's something like one out of every 300 submitted to us. This isn't really a clue to getting published, but it needs to be said. These are your chances. They are slim. Know this.
  • Timothy, thanks for the straight talk. It's a pleasure.

    Timothy Donnelly's first book of poems, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, was published this year by Grove Press. He recently received The Paris Review's Bernard F. Conners Prize and a Master Writer Fellowship from the New York State Writer's Institute. He lives in Brooklyn.

    Read more on Timothy in:
    The Village Voice, The Constant Critic, and The Boston Phoenix


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