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Poet Lore at the Cusp of Change

On April 26, 2019, the Dresser was at The Writer's Center of Bethesda, Maryland wearing her hat as poet--Karren Alenier and her hat as poetry publisher--The Word Works to celebrate the changing of the guard at Poet Lore. Poet Lore, founded in 1889, the oldest poetry magazine in the United States. A magazine that published and talked about prominent poets world wide-- Rabindranath Tagore, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine as well as such contemporary American poets as Mary Oliver, Alice Fulton, John Balaban, and Sharon Olds.

Among the poets reading from the latest edition of Poet Lore were Mary-Sherman Willis, Terence Winch and Linda Pastan. Reading to a large room crowded with poets. Definitely an historic occasion.

So it is that E. Ethelbert Miller and Jody Bolz had a 17-year run at reading, selecting and publishing submissions to Poet Lore. Using the metaphor of baseball as his playing field, Ethelbert gave a moving tribute to what it meant to be editing the grand old Poet Lore in America with the esteemed Jody Bolz. We all need to lean in close and support Poet Lore as it moves away from the loving embrace of these two dedicated editors. Here is what Ethelbert said in its entirety.

When I started thinking about what I would say this evening, I thought about the "Great Farewell" that took place 80 years ago.

I thought about a man on July 4, 1939 standing in Yankee Stadium, a man who had played in 2, 130 consecutive baseball games, a man who because he got a chance to wear the Yankee Pin-stripes considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I think of Lou Gerhrig this evening. I look at everyone gathered here at the Writer's Center and consider myself the luckiest poet on the face of the earth.

I'm lucky because I was part of a great Poet Lore team. I got a chance to edit alongside the Literary Babe Ruth, Jody Bolz. I consider Jody to be one of America's great poetry editors, an editor like my friend Carol Houck Smith, who worked for 60 years at W.W. Norton & Company. Carol edited the work of Stanley Kunitz, Rita Dove, Maxine Kumin and A. Van Jordan.

When Al Lefcowitz, one of the founders of this Center contacted me, inviting me to become an editor of Poet Lore, I was very surprised. I'm certain a literary critic will one day compare it to the Portland Trailblazers decision in 1984, to select Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in the NBA draft.

I was never a real reader of Poet Lore. Frankly I disliked the covers and look of the publication. When I did pick up a copy I felt like I was Jackie Robinson in the Negro Baseball League. Where were the poets of color in a major poetry magazine?

In 2019 as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Robinson's birth, we look beyond baseball, we look at our nation, we look at our culture as well as our politics. Poet Lore has always celebrated its link to Walt Whitman. In 2005 on the cover of Fall/Winter issue of Poet Lore you will find the great man embracing two children.

In many ways we are still the children of Whitman, struggling to hold onto our democracy, struggling to see a nation survive another Civil War.

As editors of Poet Lore for 17 years we listened to America singing, we listened to voices from around our nation and outside our borders. As editors we removed the walls and pages between poets, we edited the journal in such a way that a chorus of voices emerged as if each journal was one consistent narrative.

Poet Lore is not just a journal of poems, it is a journal also of ideas, essays and book reviews. If years from now one wants to know what happened on this earth - the work in this journal will present itself as History's lover. To read Poet Lore is to me intimate with America. It is to love who we are and what we believe in.

On the cover of the 2010 Spring/Summer issue of Poet Lore we placed a 1942 photo of Japanese-Americans being directed to internment camps. Looking back at this issue it's easy to mistake the Spanish of the present for the Japanese of our past.

The 2010 issue of Poet Lore came after we had placed the escape artist Houdini on the Fall / Winter 2006 cover. Houdini is trapped in a box that seems impossible to escape from. The editor's note in this issue was written by Rick Cannon, who at that time was saying farewell to Poet Lore. Rick was our Ringo. The Poet Lore "drummer" we loved; our Cannon.

Let me end my short farewell comments this evening by making reference to what I consider to be the most important issue Poet Lore during my 17 years associated with the publication.

The issue I tip my hat to is the 125th Anniversary of Poet Lore. The Fall/Winter issue
of 2014. It's the issue with Paul Laurence Dunbar on the cover. It's a photo of Dunbar I never saw while attending Paul Laurence Dunbar junior high school 120 in the South Bronx. Here we find Dunbar as being the key representative of modernism the modern man as dapper as anyone welcoming a new century into birth.

I hope the Poet Lore essay, "Who's for the Road?: Poet Lore, Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Open Road of 19th Century American Poetry" by Melissa Girard finds its way into future literary textbooks. This essay helps us to redefine American literature in much the same way the election of women to Congress in our last election is changing how we govern and desire to be governed.

I hope the road ahead isn't a rocky road for Poet Lore. If this Writer's Center truly sees itself as a center then it will shine brightly on this journal. If we can renovate a building, if we can embrace the new, then we must do nothing less, for a magazine.

Too often we play the numbers, we look at budgets, we struggle to do more with less.

But where do poems come from? Out of what unknown do they emerge to exist? To believe in a journal like Poet Lore, is to renew a love for language, to embrace beauty and water it with vision.

When Lou Gerhrig in 1939 said farewell to baseball and the Yankees, it was not the end of a great era but also the beginning of one. To wear a Yankee uniform has always met something not just to Yankee fans but to baseball. The future editors of Poet Lore must uphold tradition. They must continue to edit the way Jody and I did; reading aloud each poem selected. The new editors must keep their ears open....America is still singing.

I tip my hat to Old Walt this evening, on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Hopefully, he is somewhere looking down on us this evening and saying thank you for a job well done.

- E. Ethelbert Miller


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 27, 2019 9:20 PM.

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