Breaking Into Words:  A Conversation with
Rattapallax Editor-in-Chief, Martin Mitchell

by Nicholas Johnson, Senior Poetry Editor

[In the first of a two-part interview conducted in late July, 2001, Martin Mitchell discusses his background as editor for twenty years of Pivot, his mentor Robert Stock, his views on the problem of the poem read on the page vs. the poem heard aloud (and how that plays out for him as an editor), what most bad poems have in common, and a few poets he admires.]

NJ: They held the annual seance for Andy Warhol recently. (I didn't know they did that every year.) They don't have a seance for Bill Matthews. A lot of people miss him.

MM: I miss him a lot. He died just before my wife, Adie. Like a few months. I can't think of anybody anything like him. They should have something for him. He's a lot more of a presence even in death than Andy Warhol. He influenced a lot of people. And he was such a nice guy. He chose Jeanne Marie Beaumont's book, Placebo Effects, for The National Poetry Series Award. It's a great book.

NJ: You were the editor of Pivot for a long time. How did you get involved in that?

MM: Joseph Grucci founded it in1951 at Penn State University. Jack McManis was the editor and Georgia Lee McElhaney was his associate editor. I knew her personally and I knew her as a poet through Robert Kelley's Controversy of Poets.

She got in touch with me and asked me to be the third editor of Pivot, so that we could co-edit Pivot together—which was theoretically an impossible task. We lived nowhere near each other, but somehow we did it very well. We did it by phone and by mail. She kept things going, and the three of us edited Pivot for about seven or eight issues. Jack McManis died in the mid-l980's, leaving me and Georgia Lee McElhaney as the co-editors. Then McElhaney went into local politics, dropped out of Pivot, and left me as the sole editor. I edited Pivot myself for about twelve or thirteen years until it got taken over by another group. I then left Pivot and went to live in England. I came back to the States seven months later as editor of Rattapallax.

unconscionable to keep poems as long as most

Now I have associate editors like Judith Werner, fortunately living closer than the editors of Pivot, and so we can get together more often and make decisions quickly. We have a fast return policy for poems coming in. I don't really like to spend too much time on poems. I think they should be accepted or rejected as soon as possible. In fact, I think it's unconscionable to keep poems as long as most magazines do, keeping them for six months or more. I don't like to keep poems that come in for more than a few weeks.

NJ: I'm sure writers appreciate that.

MM: I don't know how I got into that habit, but I think it's important. If I were a poet sending things out, I wouldn't want them to be in circulation. But nobody cares because there are simultaneous submissions. That's a tough thing to respond to. I have sympathy for those who send multiple submissions, but it's a reprehensible practice. It's forced upon poets who don't want to wait. So I think it's the editors who encourage that by keeping things for so long.

NJ: At Pivot, when you were the sole editor, with that quick response time, what were you looking for? When you read the submissions what caught your attention?

self-involvement is very monotonous

MM: My response is very quick. Most bad poems are the same. It's the ones that are different that are good. You hear an individual voice. It sticks out. It sort of jumps out at you. You just stop and you put it aside. Which is really not the place for it to be. You put it aside because you can't get rid of it. You don't want to. It says something different. It says something new. It's a wonderful pleasure to see that and you put it aside.

But the rest all seem the same. Most of them are just hopelessly self-involved. And they're the ones you immediately send back because self-involvement is very monotonous, very similar. But it's all a matter of taste. It really is a matter of taste. No matter how much you like to think as editor you have some objective viewpoint, it's all very personal and subjective. It's what you like. And you have to hope and depend on your own experience, that it counts for something.

NJ: That's what T.S. Eliot said. After you look at the poem in a critical way, what really matters is that you like it.

MM: Yes. It is a matter of like. But you have to have some basis to go on for what you like.

NJ: Elaborate on what you mean by the 'self-involved' poem.

MM: It uses the first person a lot. It's a sign of… It's too easy to say. It's a sign of somebody who's still in adolescence. Adolescence is very self-centered. I'm not knocking adolescence. It's just that it does all sound the same. There's nothing distinctive about it.

something separate from that something
that is learned—plus imagery or humor

You look for something separate from that something that is learned to say something about something else outside of oneself. Something that's secure enough to have a viewpoint of the world and have an opinion about things in it outside of the self.

NJ: That all makes sense. I think it might upset some people, though, to hear that it's a matter of taste.

MM: But what I look for, actually, is imagery. So many poems these days seem to be lacking in imagery. So I tend (it may be a bias) but I tend to look for imagery. I love poems with images, and if they're without imagery, they're often just too prosaic for me to have any interest. And failing that, or in addition to that, there's sense of humor.

NJ: You like a sense of humor.

MM: A sense of humor can be outrageous and I like things that are outrageous. Because that's novelty. That's something different, something new, something separate.

the personal, distinctively voiced, is crucial

NJ: You've mentioned imagery, and you also said you're attracted to a personality, or to a distinct voice in a poem.

MM: Yes. To hear a distinct voice in a poem is crucial. That's what separates it from the narcissistically personal. It's very important to me for a poem to be personal, but not self-involved. It has to have its own voice. Personal in that sense, not self-involved.

NJ: Just as a point of reference, what poets before, say, 1945, 1950, were you attracted to at an early age, at a later age? I'm interested in what formed your aesthetic, whatever it is, how you got there.

MM: It's a rotten prejudice, but I have really very little interest in poetry before about 1950. My main interest is in poets that I met in the late 50's and that's what got me interested in poetry.

the eye vs. ear dichotomy

NJ: And that's where you met the poets that you later became an editor for. Would you like to say something about them? I know you like the work of Robert Stock.

MM: Yes, I do. Robert Stock was one of my mentors, and he had a bias that interests me. In fact, it's come to obsess me. It's the poem on the page vs. the poem that's heard. And I remember introducing Robert Stock to another of my favorite poets, Ree Dragonette, whose work I love to hear. They got on personally but they had nothing in common because she believed in her work as read aloud. She believed in addressing each person in the audience as she read and that's why she wrote poetry, to communicate to individual people in the audience that she read to.

And Robert Stock was a poet for whom the poem meant nothing off the page. For him, the poem was valuable only on the page. It had to be read. So there were two different poets, and their work had equal value.

I'm still interested in that sort of dichotomy between poetry that's heard, that's read out loud, and poetry that's appreciated on the page.

I got to be interested again in this problem, or whatever it is, when I was in Cambridge, England, and went to this coffee shop regularly, which was rather like the 1960's coffee shops here in New York. In Cambridge there were lots of good poets whose work sounded wonderful when it was read and I heard it, and I asked them for samples of their work, but on the page it didn't really have much value at all. So that's one of the things that interests me.

And that has an interesting facet in Rattapallax, where one of the essential ingredients of each issue is the CD on which poets read their work so that you can hear it while you read it. Or you can hear it separate from your reading of it. It's two different things: The reading of it on the page and the hearing it.

a known voice conjured as reader
must be suppressed as editor

NJ: Have you ever had the experience where there was a poet you did not appreciate until you actually heard the poet read, and then something happens?

MM: Yes. That often happens. Hearing it makes it more readily accessible. Ree Dragonette's work, as I said, doesn't seem to work very well on the page, and because what's left of her is in books, it doesn't really work so well and she is being forgotten. On the page, her work doesn't mean much. It's a pity that there weren't recordings of her work so that you could hear her voice, because her voice, reading her poetry, was irresistible.

With Rattapallax there is a CD, and we hope that readers look at it on the page and hear it at the same time. But when you're accepting poetry, and you're reading it on the page, it doesn't really help, except on a very personal level, to imagine that you're hearing the person read it.

NJ: But when you read a poem, without knowing the poet's voice, you have to provide—at least in your experience in reading poetry—some kind of "voice" to the poem. However you do that you hear the sounds.

MM: I do hear the sounds and it's part of something I do as an editor. If it's a poet I know, I hear them reading it, but that's not any help to anyone but me—and it's probably not a help to me either, because it puts the poem across where it shouldn't come across because I'm supposed to be reading it on the page and here I am hearing their voice.

a good poem from somewhere unimaginable
makes it all worthwhile

NJ: I was asking the opposite question before. When you read a poem by someone you've never heard read… And then you get a poem that comes from nowhere.

MM: Oh, and if it's a good poem, it's a revelation. That's what my job is all about, the best part of it, to read something from someone you've never heard of. You get all these poems from people you've heard of, and they're either bad or they're wonderful or whatever they are, and then you get a poem that comes from nowhere and you've never heard of this person. Where does this person come from? Out of the blue. Somewhere unimaginable. And it's good. That makes it all worthwhile. It doesn't happen very often.

NJ: I was asking earlier, to explain what you're looking for.

MM: It's very subjective. I can't really answer that. I've thought about how to define what I like and what I'm looking for. But I can't. I just can't do it. I just have my opinions. As the old saying goes, 'I know what I like.'

NJ: I won't ask you to define it because you say you can't, but you're interested in the voice of the poem, the speaker—.

Kinnell, Grennan: good poets who
have trouble writing bad poems

MM: —They should be distinctive. That's what you look for. There are poets whose voices are incredibly distinctive, and they are my favorites, like Galway Kinnell, Eamon Grennan, Charlie Smith, Philip Miller. They have distinctive, individual voices, and they send me poems. They put me in an embarrassing position because I don't like to send any of their poems back. I accept as many of their poems as I can, which is only two or three an issue, and I have to send the rest back. Well, what I do is Xerox them, and keep them around for another issue. I don't want them to go to waste. They're good poets who have trouble writing bad poems.

NJ: Are there any others poets you would like to add to that category?

MM: That's enough for now. Galway Kinnell and Eamon Grennan are the two. They are masters to me, because their poems work on the page and they work in their voices. That's just perfect to me.

NJ: Last December, I attended Galway's lecture on "The Music of Poetry" at The Graduate Center.[*] He singled out poets who used expressive sounds, tones that "fill out" the poem.

MM: Yes. He has a poem about eating oatmeal with Keats. ["Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: / .  .  .  oatmeal should not be eaten alone." "Oatmeal," from When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone.]

NJ: What I'm suggesting is, that what makes the poem you read on the page an exciting experience, and when you hear it read aloud...

MM: It helps to have it read aloud. It always does. But the poem has to work by itself on the page without the voice, even though it's hard not to hear the poet's voice if you know them.

NJ: We don't have Keats on tape.

MM: No.

NJ: " .  .  .  to cease upon the midnight with no pain."

MM: Sounds good. That's worthy of Stock or Grennan.

NJ: But that's just part of one line, and you can hear the music in it.

MM: Yes. That sounds perfect. That's a great line. God! I wish we had him reading.

[*] The Annual Stanley Burnshaw Lecture, Dec. 8, 2000. Videotape: Continuing Education Department (212) 817-2005. See Series Review Jan '01. covered in Addendum to review of Kinnell's December appearance at Makor.

[In Part Two of the interview, scheduled to appear next month, Mitchell discusses the question of 'accessibility' in poetry ("dangerous, but necessary"), the re-emergence of its lyrical qualities rooted in neo-Romantic music, and the 'almost perfect' poem.]