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On the Origin of “Poetry, Publishing, and Race”

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I have had a personal connection to many of the programs I’ve worked on these past five years at the Poetry and Literature Center. But our panel tomorrow, “Poetry, Publishing, and Race,” might have the deepest connection for me.

I had the idea for the program because of my own experiences as a publisher. In 2000 I founded the literary magazine jubilat with three friends. For years we worried about the fact that our contributors were mostly male and white. The editors and I were all white, and our network of writers and editors was also mostly white as well. We knew the magazine should be more diverse—we just didn’t figure out how to do it as successfully as we wanted to.

When the editors stepped down, and I had the opportunity to take on new editors, I recruited Jen Bervin and Terrance Hayes. I talked to them both about expanding the magazine’s community of contributors, and both helped us do so. However, I also realized I couldn’t just assume that because I now had a female editor and an editor of color that it would happen overnight. In fact, it wasn’t until Jen and Terrance cycled off, and our third round of editors came on, that I felt the magazine consistently championed a diverse mix of poets. Editors Cathy Park Hong and Evie Shockley had a great network of writers to reach out to—Evie’s announcement on the Cave Canem listserv had an immediate and lasting response.

I am excited to welcome Cathy and Evie to the Library of Congress tomorrow as part of our panel; we have also invited Carmen Giménez Smith, the editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol and publisher of Noemi Press, as well as Poetry Magazine Editor Don Share. I know all four to be open, insightful, and passionate editors, and I look forward to talking with them. To begin the event I’ve asked each to include a poem they published which they think speaks to issues around race in ways that prose, and other art forms, do not. Since time is short, I cannot do the same myself at the event—but I’d like to do so here, by featuring a poem published in jubilat’s second issue (which was later reprinted in The Best American Poetry 2002). This poem, “On Antiphon Island” by Nathaniel Mackey (click to read/hear the recording), shows how the incantatory power of the lyric can both echo and move through the past. It’s a very different way of imagining how to contend with the history of slavery than we get from “history books”—how we can travel from “Where we / were was the hold of a ship we were / caught / in” to “We were on / a ship’s deck dancing, drawn in a / dream / above hold…”—within a swirl of dance and music, violence and celebration, and a back-and-forth sense of place, or placelessness.