[Tom Biederbeck] How does a magazine dedicated exclusively to poetry get published for a century without missing an issue? And what do changes in the media landscape portend for its future? Don Share, senior editor of Poetry magazine, provides answers … and reveals the value of an open door and a really good rejection letter.
What was Poetry’s original purpose? How is it relevant now?
Our first editor, Harriet Monroe, came up with the idea. At that time, there was no dedicated poetry magazine in this country. She decided poetry needed a place of its own, so she invented the magazine, here in Chicago.
She wanted the magazine to be interactive. It was almost pre-bloglike. When “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” [T.S. Eliot, 1915] was published in the magazine, there was controversy — people had never seen anything like it. Harriet and her successors always interacted with readers, to make the magazine more of a conversation, even a debate.
Part of her vision was we would have an open-door policy — the magazine would not be beholden to any particular kind of writing or art. It would be eclectic and forward-thinking. Many literary magazines are designed to appeal to certain trends or tendencies in literature. We don’t do that. We’re open to everything. The metaphor of the open door has always led us forward.
In 2002, the Poetry Foundation received a bequest from Ruth Lilly, heiress to Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals. How has that affected you?
For most of its first 100 years, the magazine was the way most literary magazines are — its survival was always precarious. When Ruth Lilly made her bequest, her intent was to allow Poetry to continue publishing into perpetuity — whatever that turns out to be!
Ruth Lilly [1915–2009] was an interesting person. You might have heard the story behind her bequest. She sent her own poetry to the magazine for many years, and although she never had anything accepted for publication, she liked the polite and personable responses she got rejecting her work.
With the contribution, we’re now able to present artwork of significant quality in the magazine — in the current issue, we have paintings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and we’ve also published work by Tony Fitzpatrick, collages by the poet David Shapiro and others. Our Associate Editor Fred Sasaki helps us design those features.
Now for the first time we have a dedicated building, so our door really is open to the public. With the magazine having been here 100 years, it’s a way of giving something back to the people of Chicago.
The print edition of the magazine was redesigned in 2005 by Winterhouse. I remember it well, because the redesign was honored by a magazine I edited, STEP inside design. How does Winterhouse figure into the magazine today?
Winterhouse helps us position the cover art and color-coordinate it, if you will — every month there’s a slightly different color. They funnel cover art our way, but sometimes we get it on our own.
The template for the magazine is fairly set now, but editorially we’re always challenging the template by coming up with new features we’ve never had before.
How does the print edition fit into your offerings?
All of the content of the magazine is available online and in our Android, iPhone and iPad apps. We also have podcasts, where poets read their works and are interviewed.
There’s a debate about print, e-books and new media. But to us, it’s not an either-or proposition. It’s an and-and. One of the things the print edition does is reflect the sequencing and texture that our editor, Chris Wiman, and I work on — there’s an order to it, a look and feel, the paper feels nice … and that suits most of our readers.
January 2008 cover art, Katy Fischer; January 2010 cover art, Lorenzo Petrantoni
But a lot of people don’t want to want to read a whole issue of a poetry magazine. Digitally, people can zero in on a particular poem — a poem they might want to read at a wedding or a funeral, on Valentine’s Day. All of these are different dimensions of our content, presented in different ways.
We won two National Magazine Awards last year. One of them was for editorial excellence in the category of literary, political and professional magazines, and one was for podcasts. We try to use each medium for its own strengths. But the print edition is the flagship, the thing we love the most. We’re all kind of wired to pick the print up, look it over, heft it, admire it.
“Poetry is news that stays news” [Ezra Pound]. We’ve lucked into a physical format with the print magazine that has served our content well.
Aside from cover typography that says “100,” what makes this year’s issues centennial?
This year, each issue has the rubric of the 100 with different colors and artwork. We’ve commissioned various artists, from Milton Glaser on, to create a different Pegasus for every issue. Pegasus has always been the symbol of the magazine. The earliest issues have a Pegasus designed by Eric Gill [which makes Winterhouse’s selection of Gill Sans for the cover banner especially appropriate].
One thing happening for the centennial is that the University of Chicago Press is publishing an anthology edited by Chris Wiman and myself called The Open Door: 100 Poems and 100 Years of Poetry Magazine. Some of those 100 poems are familiar; some will be surprising to people.
Our main business has always been the process of discovery. We hope to keep going into the next century by doing what the magazine does best — discovering people like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost … and all those poets who are now very famous.
Top image: Oct. 1912 issue; Jan. 2012 issue, cover art by Cathie Bleck. All images courtesy Poetry magazine.