New Poetry Editor at Open Letter and Call for Poetry Submissions!
Open Letter’s new Poetry Editor, Anastasia Nikolis, interviewed herself so that you wouldn’t have to. These are the questions she thinks might help you learn about the new person reading the poetry submissions at Open Letter Books.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What else do you do when you aren’t working with Open Letter?
I am a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Rochester, with a focus on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics. When I am not writing my dissertation, I teach freshman composition at the university.
In addition to being the new Poetry Editor at Open Letter, I am the poetry interviews editor for the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. You can check out my interviews with Joan Naviyuk Kane about her multilingual poetry and with Ada Limón about place and displacement in her work on the Poetry and Literature Center website.
I am also the co-host of the Black Box Poetry podcast with two dear friends, translator Isaac Wheeler and scholar Sean Hughes. We have a new season dropping in the next few weeks that features episodes about erotic poetry, translated poetry, and the outer reaches of metaphor in poetry. We also talk about roller coasters.
When did you discover poetry and what was your “conversion poem”: the poem that made you realize that poems make language work differently than in novels and nonfiction?
My poetry discovery happened in a high school English class when my teacher had us read “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot. The opening stanza was what got me. I could imagine these broken people who were so empty of meaning and purpose that it was almost as if they had been stuffed with straw instead of blood and viscera. But Eliot doesn’t stop there! He pushes that metaphor to its limit! He basically says, you have the empty people? Good. Now, imagine that these emptied people are filled with dry grass. If a person filled with grass tries to speak, what happens? Their voices are the sound of wind rustling through dried grass.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Eliot does more than merely extend the metaphor of straw-filled people to describe the way they would sound. The rhyme and the onomatopoeic quality of the “ss” in “grass” and “glass” more tightly binds the simile that connects the dried grass and the rat’s feet over broken glass so that these two separate images almost collapse into one another in their effect. The rats are sort of part of the straw people, even though they are really just part of the empty setting around the empty people. The ability to experience that much of that world at once—so much sensory experience at one time—and the resulting empathic experience of trying to imagine what it would feel like to be that empty— was intoxicating. It took me a few more years to really lock into poetry, but that was the moment that started it all.
How did you discover translated literature?
I found translation in a more literal way after college while I was living in Rome as an au pair and learning Italian. I was walking around the city one day and saw a completely innocuous sign at a construction site in a large intersection near the house I was staying that said “gli scavi,” which refers to ruins or an excavation site. When I asked my friend about it she said they were doing road work there. Knowing the other definition of the word, I was a little confused and I asked if it was an excavation site. She said that it might be, but the distinction isn’t important since road work can so often lead to excavations of an archaeological site, and archaeological excavation can often precede road work. She said I should think of them interchangeably.
She was making a joke, but that experience was really important to my learning about how words have different echoes to them because of their cultural context, and deeply informed my forays into Italian literature while I was living in Italy. After that experience, every Italian word that I thought was straightforward felt like an opportunity: maybe there was some valence I wasn’t aware of or hadn’t thought about. It felt familiar because this was how I had always approached poetry and poetic language.
That potential for multiplicity and flexibility in meaning is always alive in poetry. (Or should be.) A poetry reader needs to be flexible to the different valences that are available, and be flexible enough to accept a few different ones at a given time. Or perhaps even more challenging, give one up that isn’t quite reconciling with the rest of the poem.
What are the most important things to know about the Poetry Series at Open Letter?
Open Letter publishes about ten books annually, and one of those books is a book of poetry! There are nine books of poetry in the Open Letter Poetry Series backlist, plus the easiness and the loneliness by Asta Olivia Nordenhof, which was published as part of the Danish Women’s Writers Series.
What are you looking for when you are reading poetry submissions?
I am deeply interested in poems that are aware of their poetic tools. What do I mean by this? I mean that if a poet is writing prose poems—therefore eliminating the use of the poetic line as a tool—that poet will emphasize other tools like syntax or consonance or metaphor to demonstrate new things in the language. Carl Phillips is a great example of an American poet who uses his syntax powerfully since line break is less important in his work.
I also think that contemporary American poetry often relies too heavily on the line break, or the lack thereof, for its primary poetic effect. One of the most fun things about reading poetry from other languages is that these poets often don’t overly rely on that tool in the way many American poets do. I love finding poems that recruit metaphor most strongly, or surrealist imagery, or assonance, or something else that makes me think deeply about the limits of my native language.
Poetry and translation are necessarily invested in a similar set of concerns about what the limits of a language are and how to compensate for those limits or stretch them further.
Are you accepting poetry submissions right now?
Yes! And it is easier to submit than ever before! Check us out on Submittable!
Translators and poets wishing to submit should be sure to include:
- a one-page cover letter that includes a brief biography of the poet and the translator; a description of the manuscript; a description of translation difficulties posed by the particular poetry text; a list of the author’s published works, if available; and a list of poets writing in English who share stylistic similarities with the translated poet.
- a sample translation of at least 20 pages (more complete manuscripts are preferred, but not required)
Notifications will generally be sent in January and August, but submitters may hear throughout the year.
Interested in Poetry@OpenLetter?
Keep checking back on the Two Month Review and look for the Poetry@OpenLetter logo! Anastasia will be posting monthly updates about favorite poems, interviews with translators and poets, mini book reviews, and more.