Interview with Poet and Editor Andrew Reeves
Andew Reeves received his MFA in creative writing and media arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His work can be found in Four Chambers Press and Pleiades. He is also an editor at Bear Review. He currently lives and writes in Kansas City, Mo.
You can read his poem, "Withdrawl" at the Ilanot Review.
I met Andrew Reeves through our work together in the world of libraries. Sometimes, like a book, the right people seem to come into your life at the right time. In the short time I've known Andrew--a little more than a year now--he's had a massive impact on how I look at writing. I was ecstatic when he agreed to do this little interview. I sent him these questions and he began to write. Actually, he began to record. What you have here is a transcript of sorts. Andrew took the questions I had for him and away he went, recording himself talking through the questions. Then he went back through the audio, transcribed, edited, and here we are. This is a treat, to hear a poet talk about their passion not in their written voice, but something close to their real voice. Outside of posting audio--which we might do in the future if we do this again--this is as close as you can get to hearing this poet's voice discussing his passion.
Q: What’s a piece of poetry or prose that changed your life? How?
Man, there’s so many honestly. I think I’ll try to narrow it down to what’s hit me more recently. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was a book that just hit me at the exact right moment. It’s about a father and son building a time machine in their garage--so it’s about their relationship and how time sort of gets away from us. How relationships are fractured and rebuilt--how time changes us constantly and involuntarily. But it also has these beautiful passages that explore what Yu calls the “elasticity of the present” or the idea of the “ever-expanding moment.” It’s a beautiful book that came to me when I had a lot of dread about the future--about the passing of time. That’s always so mind-blowing. When a book finds you in the exact moment you need it, and you can tell instantly. A friend and I are reading Infinite Jest right now, and I can already tell it’s found me at the right moment--that it’s going to work on me.
As far as poetry, there’s almost too many to count. I mean, I think that’s what good poetry does--it changes you. But I read Kevin Prufer’s Churches right before I started working on my thesis, and it completely changed the way I thought about poetry. The way he uses narrative and language and structure really had a huge impact on my writing because I’d never seen anyone do anything like it before. My thesis chair, Hadara, calls it “post-narrative” poetry, which I think is a brilliant way of putting it. The way he uses time in that book is so fascinating and unbelievably effective.
Q: In your opinion, who are some underrated and overrated names in poetry?
Oh, god. Well, my temptation is to say we’re all underrated! (laughs) Um, overrated… I don’t know. I’ll put it this way, I always used to be so mad at Billy Collins, and then I went through the MFA program. Now I’m like, “Why was I always so mad at Billy Collins?!” (laughs) Like he does what he does very well. It’s not necessarily what I’m interested in doing, maybe. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good in its own way. A friend of mine always used to throw lines at me, and I’d be like, “That’s good. Who’s that?” And of course, “Billy Collins.” (laughs)
Um... I guess I can put it in terms of who has or hasn’t held up over time though. Like, I started reading Bukowski when I was sixteen and had this massive chip on my shoulder. I bought a bunch of his books back then. Now I pick them up and I’m just kind of like, “Ehh.” I mean, it’s interesting when you’re a high school kid and haven’t read all that much. Like it seems provocative. But it hasn’t really held up over the years.
Underrated? There’s so many. Um... Randall Mann, Bridget Lowe, Peter Mishler, John Gallaher--now I’m just naming contributors. (laughs) Kaveh Akbar, Traci Brimhall, Hadara Bar-Nadav… I mean, not to be whatever, but my co-editors: Ruth Williams, Marcus Myers, Brian Clifton--they’re putting out work that blows me away constantly.
Q: What’s the strangest or most peculiar reason you’ve had to reject a work?
I mean, I wanna respect everyone’s privacy… Occasionally, we get like audio files? Not like writers reading their work--I think we would be open to that--but like found sound recordings or music tracks. And we’re all kind of like, “How would we even put this in the issue?” You know? (laughs)
Q: How do you best edit your own work? What advice can you give to others about self-editing?
Edit other people’s work. As much as you can. As often as you can. I don’t think I had any idea how to edit my own stuff before grad school. I got really lucky. There were so many opportunities to edit and workshop and revise. I guess that’s the answer: I edit my own stuff like I would anyone else’s--at least I try to. And it’s like anything, that instrument has to be tuned. So, I just got my eyes on anything I could. You know, what parts of this are working? Which parts aren’t? What could be cut and not missed? What could be added to enhance it? Is this ending too big? Do we need these first few lines? And then, the more you work through that process with other people’s work, you’ll start to pick up on your own tendencies--your own weaknesses. Like, I have a tendency to throat-clear at the beginning of a piece and get overly emphatic at the end. So, for me, the first and last 4 to 8 lines can always go. Cause the poem’s in the middle. What I’m after is in the middle. So, yeah, just edit, edit, edit anyone’s work as much as you can. Ask people! Ask them for their work. Like, who’s going to turn that down? Even if they don’t want criticism--critique it and keep it to yourself. Edit the books on your shelves. Everything can always get better.
Q: As an editor, have you ever received an angry response from a writer? Most of us know that responding to a rejection letter is a big no-no. What advice can you give to poets and prose authors for dealing with rejection?
As all my writing professors told me, it’s like 75% of the game. But I get it. It’s terrifying. I’m still scared of it. But I think the more you submit and the deeper you immerse yourself into the literary world--you realize how massive it is. You realize just how many people are all trying to do this thing--and it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do. To make something interesting and new and worth people’s time? You’re going to strike out more than you hit. I mean, the number of submissions we go through alone to get one issue is staggering. And we’re a smaller mag right now. So, I think at a certain point you realize it isn’t personal. I think it’s easy when you first start out to think it’s personal. It’s not.
But no, I don’t think we’ve gotten an angry response from anybody. I think everyone’s pretty well aware of how taboo that is. We’ve gotten some lukewarm responses to edits we’ve suggested, but... (laughs) that’s just the editing process.
Q: What does editorial vision mean to you? Who have been some of your favorite poets to work with?
Brian and Marcus (our co-founders) really set out with this specific vision of creating a space where poets you’d never heard of could be published right alongside poets you had heard of, and we’ve been incredibly fortunate in that venture.
I don’t know that I have names but anybody who clearly has a keen eye and is invested in their work and the issue. I’ve worked with poets who I’ll send a proof to, and they’ll be like, “Well actually that’s supposed to be two spaces not a tab and that word looks like it should be a little further to the right…” I love that stuff. It shows they care and they take their work seriously. But I’m also a little obsessive about how things look on the page.
Q: As a poet yourself, what considerations do you make when titling your works? How can titles and other framings influence a work for better or worse?
Oh, man. I think that’s the thing we say the most when we’re sitting around the editing table: “I don’t care much for the title.” (laughs) It’s made me really self-conscious about titling my own stuff. It’s crazy how much it can make or break a work. My best advice is to keep it simple. At least that’s what I’ve found in my own work. Like I’ve gotten a lot of headway out of just titling the poem with what it’s about. For me, if I just put the subject right up top it’s like, “Ok, that’s out of the way. They know what it’s about. Now let’s get down to describing the thing.” I think overly clever or overly heady titles are just distractions. Not even distractions--they take away from the work the poem is doing.
Q: What changes in the literary world excite or worry you?
I mean, I could talk about demonetization and the many issues that exist in the publishing industry, but I think a lot of that has already been said by people who understand that side of things far better than me.
I think, ultimately, poetry really excites and worries me. It excites me because I feel like we’re in a really interesting time and place when it comes to that specific discipline. I feel like I’m constantly in the process of finding new poets and new books of poetry that make me rethink how poetry functions--it’s a landscape that seems to be constantly redefining itself and pushing the boundaries and reinventing the artform. I worry because it feels like the general public’s interest in poetry is steadily declining. The poetry section at chain bookstores is getting smaller and smaller. And even what’s there is anthologies and collections--it’s rare to see a book of poetry from a contemporary poet on the shelf. So, it starts to feel like there’s this whole world where all these crazy new and interesting things are happening and it’s like, “Why isn’t everyone freaking out about this?” I know it’s a complicated issue because to a lot of people it seems like this really intimidating thing, and it takes time. You have to really sit with poems and that can be daunting sometimes, but I think a lot of people find poetry unapproachable because they haven’t read a lot of poetry. So, the problem becomes cyclical… because I think poetry’s one of the more approachable artforms honestly.
Q: If you could ask any poet, living or deceased, any question, who and what would you ask?
Man… (long pause) Ok, this is gonna sound strange, but there’s this poet I was kind of obsessed with for a little while named D. A. Levy. He was writing mainly in the late sixties, and he never really made much of a name for himself. Very much writing at the same time as the Beats are starting to take the national stage, but wasn’t really a part of that scene--wasn’t really accepted into that scene. He buys a printing press--he’s living in Cleveland--and he drafts up this artistic manifesto and starts printing out these bizarre pamphlets that are like half visual poetry and half political commentary… just weird, intriguing stuff. So, these pamphlets start circulating through the city, and a lot of the poems in them talk about how corrupt the police in Cleveland are. So eventually, the cops arrest him and confiscate his printing press. He gets charged with distribution of obscene material and spends a few weeks or something in jail. When he gets out, everyone close to him says he’s like a completely different person. He never got the printing press back, completely quits writing, gets really reclusive, grows increasingly paranoid--says the cops are following him, they’ve tapped his apartment and are listening to him--in one story he puts a knife to his best friend’s throat and accuses him of being a spy… just wild stuff. So one day he’s found dead in his apartment from what appears to be a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. He was 26. But of course there’s immediately all these conspiracy theories that start swirling around this guy’s death. There’s books you can buy today about this guy and all the bizarre mythology that sort of surrounds his life… It’s a crazy story...
But yeah, I guess I’d just wanna know if he did in fact commit suicide… (pauses) (laughs) That was a lot for just that! When I was in graduate school I did a research project on him, and it just so happened that the KU library had a ton of his prints and pamphlets in their special collections. So, I got to go look at his stuff first hand. It was incredible.
Q: Outside of reading everything they can get their hands on, what advice would you give to new and emerging poets who want to hone their craft? What practical steps can new and emerging poets take to get their poetry to the next level?
Well, first of all, that first thing you said. (laughs) Read everything you can get your hands on. I mean, that really is the best advice. Particularly, get your hands on all the lit mags you can. Because that’s where all the new and emerging poets are going to be publishing their work. So if you want to know what’s happening on the front lines of this artform, then you go look at the lit mags. And at first, it’ll feel like an endless, shapeless sea. But the more you get acquainted with them, you start to pick up on specific aesthetics. So, “this journal seems to publish these types of poems.” Or, “Oh, I keep seeing this poet’s name showing up in these kinds of journals.” Then, as the landscape starts to become a little clearer, your own personal aesthetic starts to form. Soon you’ll realize, “I like this journal because they publish this kind of work.” And of course, your own writing starts to reflect that aesthetic pull. Then you start sending your work not just to random journals but places where you feel like your aesthetic fits. Now you’re in communication with the world of poetry, and that’s how you find your voice. You can’t find that in a vacuum. I’m not sure you can even write decent poetry in a vacuum. You have to be in communication with what’s going on right now. I see younger poets making the same mistake I made in my early twenties--I had no idea what was going on. I read their work and it’s like they haven’t read anything that’s come out in the last twenty years. It’s like, “That’s been done. We’re past that.” Don’t be like me. Read everything you can get your hands on, but especially what your contemporaries are doing.
Q: Outside of making sure submission guidelines were followed, what’s the first thing you look for when you start reading a submission? What will stop you from reading? What pulls you through to the end?
So there’s a few things. The first, I think, is form. Why did you put the words on the page in the way that you did? And I don’t mean that we need to recognize some specific classical formal structure--what we’re looking for is intent. So why is this in couplets? Why did they break the line after that word? Why is that word on a line all by itself? If there seems to be some artistic intention behind those kinds of choices and they help the poem be effective, then we’re usually hooked. If there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason behind those kinds of choices or they just seem plain random, then it’s unnecessary work to put a reader through. The second is language. We want new phrases, new metaphors, new sound-play, new ideas. So, we know stars glimmer, we know tears glisten, we know silence can be deafening--we don’t need to be told that anymore. If a poem sounds like a hundred other poems we’ve read before, then why would we ask our readers to pay attention to it? And the final thing is imagery. And this is something I’ve noticed that’s more specific to my co-editors and I. We tend to gravitate toward pieces that have sharp, vivid, strange, sometimes disturbing, sometimes gorgeous, but always lingering images. And by that I mean, we will often refer to pieces as we’re building an issue by the image that stayed with us. So, “That’s the one with all the dead ducks in the fountain.” Fresh, new images seem to resonate in a big way with us. And that wasn’t from a real poem. That was just an example. (laughs)
BONUS QUESTION: In your editorial position right now at Bear Review, what are you looking for, and where can people go to submit?
We are looking for poetry, flash fiction and microfiction, and you can go to bearreview.submittable.com/submit to send us your work. Please do!