n the classes that I teach, one of the staple texts is Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” First delivered as a talk at a women’s conference in 1978, the essay is explicitly addressed to women, calling on them to reclaim the erotic not just as a term associated reductively with sex and pornography, but as the life force that affects the creative, intellectual, and social dimensions of their lives. The essay describes a renewal that begins in the capacity for complex joy in the self and turns, eventually, towards the need to activate that capacity in others. Lorde’s vision in the essay—as in all of her work as a writer, critic, and activist—underscores the dynamic between the intimate and the political, the power of individual agency and its potential as social action.
When I first encountered Lorde’s essay, it immediately reframed my sense of who I was and the things that I did as a writer, a teacher, a citizen, a member of families and communities that I cared about. The essay gave me a way of seeing how the various parts of my life harmonized or were in conflict with each other, and it gave me a sense of what priorities deserved my continuing labor and which ones needed to be set aside. Lorde led me to a motto that I’ve been trying to live up to since I read her essay almost twenty years ago: live to capacity. In actual practice, living to capacity has meant bringing as much force as possible to the things in my life that I have said yes to. It has also meant a continuous reminder that, notwithstanding the sense of being apart that often characterizes my life as a writer, everything I do is a part of.
My work as the poetry editor of NER is an extension of that live to capacity motto. When I started the position four years ago, I identified two aims that would define—and continue to define—my work: to feature poetry that is representative of the variety of excellent poetry now being written in the United States, and to bring as many new poets into the magazine’s pages as possible. For nearly two decades now—with 9/11 as a kind of initiating flash point—we have been experiencing intense conflict and change, and the arts, particularly poetry, have urgently mirrored the textures of our times, even as they have recorded the things that art has always recorded—love, pain, courage, hope, mortality, imagination, villainy, grief, ideas, stories. I wanted the poems in NER to capture all of that—that is, the range encompassed by the topical and the transcendent, and also much in between, especially the work that brought the topical and the transcendent together, in a commingling that often informs the best poems.
The poems in the current issue are certainly representative—not just of poetry’s broad and deep scope, but also of the vitality of American poetry today. Diane Glancy’s poems feel like origin narratives that look, with a clear-eyed mythic perspective, into far time. “In the beginning there was a boat made of bark,” one of her poems begins. Meanwhile, Benjamin Garcia’s “Ode to the Peacock,” whose speaker wants to “smear my queer into the mirror,” is very much of the present. Jonathan Stout’s “Dysphonia” describes a child’s alarmed awareness of a parent’s decline, using rhyme—one of poetry’s oldest wiles—to bring song into loss. And Lynne Thompson’s “Langston won’t stay in his grave” speaks from the legacy of racial woundedness that Langston Hughes and his poetry exemplify.
As for the aim of bringing new poets to the magazine, the current issue also embodies the work we have done towards that aim. For the last four years, we have dedicated the poetry in each winter issue to works by poets who have not previously appeared in the magazine. During my time as poetry editor, we have published over two hundred poets—including poets from abroad whose poems appear in our pages in translation—and about 70 percent of those poets were new to NER. The thirteen poets in this issue show the multiplicity that is generated when openness is intentionally part of an editorial ethos. Susan Mitchell, a poet of distinguished accomplishment, is here—and so is Gavin Yuan Gao, who only recently completed his undergraduate studies. Barbara Jane Reyes, a poet of the San Francisco Bay Area, is here—and so too is Christopher Salerno, a poet of New Jersey. The congregation of poets in any issue of NER often feels to me like the makings of a fantastic party. Or, because it is early November in an election season as I write this, I think of the people waiting in long lines at their polling places, and the upbeat purpose of that assembly.
A part of. The work of being a poetry editor for NER is not, of course, something I do alone. Each year, we receive thousands of poetry submissions, and I have relied on our poetry readers to bring the gems in those submissions to my attention. I’m grateful to the following past and present readers, for their hard work and careful discernment—Kate Asche, Luke Brekke, Kaisa Edy, Karin Gottshall, Richie Hofmann, Quinn Lewis, Paul Otremba, Angela Narciso Torres, and Sarah Wolfson. I’m also grateful to Carolyn Kuebler, the editor of NER. One of the joys of choosing the poems for each issue is the conversations that Carolyn and I have about those poems. Our conversations get into the weeds—about the choices of diction and metaphor and syntax that poets make. We also discuss just as earnestly the larger things that poetry participates in—poetry’s continuing life as an art form, its traditions and innovations, and literature’s overall role in responding to social and political questions. Like the reading, choosing, and talking-together that’s been done by the editors of NER for forty years, our conversations contribute to something ongoing and profound. They surely constitute what living to capacity—translated into an editorial stance—looks like in action.