Our newest poetry editor, Kyle J. Bassett, discusses Louie C.K., music, and spirit animals with intern Shelby Heinrich.
Shelby Heinrich: What exactly does it mean to be the poetry editor at HFR ? What are your main responsibilities?
Kyle J. Bassett : To me, it means the world. I have the daily opportunity to read work that advances the frontlines of poetry. As one of two poetry editors for HFR, the responsibilities are split between Jackie and myself. While this sounds pretty ‘kush’, as the kids say, it actually makes me work even harder (in a good way). When I find a piece I love, I have to fight for it. Sometimes I lose, and that sucks. But it keeps me honest. There are instances where I love a piece the first time I read it, then I get conflicting opinions and I either have to justify my tastes or cede that I missed something. For me, reading and editing a journal is just as important as studying the classics and theory.
SH: What do you feel is important to look for when selecting poetry for HFR? Is there a certain “oomph” that it needs to have?
KJB: I’ll do my best to not make this a New Yorker-length response. When I sit down to read submissions I have cleared my palate by reading around 5 to 6 different poets whom I’m interested in at the time. I try to spice it up across the poetic schools and time-periods so that I am not going in with a limited view. This practice, I hope, forces me to slow down when I read submissions, and to read them in their entirety - sometimes there is gold at the end of a cliché filled rainbow.
One of the biggest things I am looking for in any given piece is originality. That may sound trite, but I think about it the same way I think about stand-up comedy. I have a weird compulsion where I create little stand-up bits in my head when I’m falling asleep at night. One of the biggest rules of comedy is don’t steal material, so when I come up with these bits in my head, I’m thinking has someone else made this joke/observation/correlation before? If the answer is yes, and I’m not doing it in a new way, I abandon the bit and start over. The same goes for submissions. I want to see a piece fresh in both observation and language. King Solomon said here is no new thing under the sun, but he never heard Louie C.K. talk about raising kids or Mark Bibbins talking about the War in Afghanistan. There is a finite number of things to be talked about, but an infinite number of ways in which to talk about them.
As for the “oomph” factor, I would actually select whatever onomatopoetic word one would use to imitate the last note of an a cappella choir. I had the amazing fortune of studying with Erin Belieu last summer, and this description is one I inherited from her. It’s the idea of a choir cutting out on that last note, and yet the sound of their voice is still hanging in the air. When I find a poem like that, I usually have to set the book down in my lap. That is the type of moment I am looking for in a poem.
SH: What form of poetry have you personally been into lately?
KJB: All of them. Seriously. Poetry and music are intertwined to me (sorry Alfred Corn), and anyone who knows me knows the genres of my music library - like my text library - are ridiculously infrequent and responsible for most of my debt. Now that I’m moving into my 3rd year in the MFA program, I’ve had to build – and buy – my comps reading-list. I have since gained substantial airline miles with said purchase. And just like music, I find two distinct pleasure in my consumption of poetry: discovery of the new and revisiting old favorites.
On a more tangible level, this weekend I read portions of Lunch Poems – Frank O’Hara, Freak Show – Valerie Bandura, The Collected Works – W.S. Merwin, The Groom Falconer – Norman Dubie, Difficult Weather – Rose Solari, The Dance of No Hard Feelings –Mark Bibbins, and Dolls – John Poch. I would highly recommend all of the above. I also feel the need to confess that this was the first time I’d ever read Lunch Poems; it was like drinking a Vampire Weekend song.
SH: How would you describe HFR to someone who knows nothing about it?
KJB: Like the desert-floor at midnight: dark, cool, and full of life.
SH: What is your spirit animal?
KJB: The Quokka