Losing My Mind With Joy: An interview with Okla Elliott, editor of New Poetry from the Midwest

Screenshot 2015-06-02 21.50.54New Poetry from the Midwest 2014 released on June 2, and I sincerely hope no booksellers are nervous to handsell it because they’re not big poetry readers. To my mind, poetry anthologies like this one are the perfect way to introduce yourself, or your customers, to non-prose writing. Not only are these all newer poems that serious poetry readers are unlikely to have at home, but no one style or subject is represented here, so the new or casual poetry reader will almost certainly find something to like. The contents are diverse, exciting, and (if you ask me) frequently delightful. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of the editors of the anthology, Okla Elliott, to learn more about it.

Betty Scott: What drew you to co-edit this series? Was there something in particular that excited you about this project?

Okla Elliott: I have often felt that most attention, culturally speaking, goes to NYC and Los Angeles, with a few nods toward places like Chicago and Seattle. The Midwest, the South, and the Southwest are largely overlooked, which is incredibly sad, given how rich these regions are in terms of literature specifically. The Midwest boasts over half of the top-ranked creative writing MFA and PhD programs in the country, and there are dozens of major presses and magazines in the region. And there are tons of great presses and book fairs or conferences in the Midwest. New American Press, for example, which I cofounded and help run still is located in the Midwest, so we decided to acquire New Stories from the Midwest, which had previously been published by Ohio University Press and then Indiana University Press, and we added a sibling anthology, New Poetry from the Midwest. The two will come out in alternating years and hopefully represent the vitality of the region’s literary talent.

BS: Do you think Midwestern poetry has a distinctive regional flavor? If so, what differentiates it from other American writing, say, Pacific Northwest poetry or Mid-Atlantic poetry?

OE: Part of my personal goal here was to show the wild diversity of work coming out of the Midwest, to prove that it’s not all cornfields and picket fences. The Polish neighborhood in Chicago is the Midwest. Amish country is the Midwest. University towns with international students from around the world are the Midwest. There are certainly some Midwest themes that we all know about, and those pop up in the anthology, but what interests me most is exploding and expanding people’s notions of the region and its writers.

BS: This collection features a number of poems dealing with reflecting on the past in general and childhood in particular. Do you think this is a trend in poetry that says something about our collective subconscious?

OE: We did a panel centered on the anthology at AWP this year, and this question came up in several variations there as well. I think all writing ends up looking toward memory to some degree, often a huge degree, but there is something about the Midwest that evokes an America of bygone years in people’s minds. This is not to say the Midwest actually links into that past in the ways we imagine.

BS: This collection contains a number of poems mentioning or about wildlife and then, alongside them, moving and thought-provoking pieces that tackle technology in very personal ways. For example, Amorak Huey’s “She Blinded Me With Molecular Nanotechnology” is just a few pages from Richard Newman’s “Digging Up The Elephant Ears” and Daniel Lassell’s llama poems. Can you speak a bit about your editorial decisions?

OE: We organized by alphabetical order so as not to show any favoritism, and since the poems were all submitted separately, we wanted to think of each as having its own space. That said, we were hoping to create an anthology that displayed the full range of poetry happening in the Midwest, which might have led us to seeking out some poems that defy what people generally think of when they hear the term “Midwestern literature.” We hope we achieved a nice balance in content and style of poems, and we hope to broaden our scope with each future edition of the anthology.

BS: On the other hand, this collection contains very few hallmarks of the alt.lit movement. In particular, I refer to the inclusion of chats, emails, social media posts, and other digital forms of communication within the body of the work. Do you think alt.lit lacks a strong presence in the Midwest because of its strong association with a specific group of New York writers?

OE: We didn’t receive much work along those lines, and I tend to see less and less of it in the world, which I take to mean that the fad has run its course and the literary world is moving on to broader and deeper possibilities.

BS: This anthology also features some really lovely blends of nontraditional forms with very timeless, tried and true poetic themes. One like this that comes to mind is Nancy Reddy’s “Divine and Mechanical Bodies,” which reads like a fairy tale but does so without regulated stanzas or meters, and “Saudades [Bottle Rocket]” clearly references other forms without mimicking them. What do you think this says about the direction poetry will take in the 21st century?

OE: I think we are seeing a golden age of sorts in terms of people blending various traditions of poetry and prose to create new hybrid forms. In fiction, we’re seeing tons of great slipstream work that blends sci-fi with literary writing or legal thrillers with literary techniques. Even our television shows are upping their game by blending these elements. The same goes for poetry. Formalist techniques and experimental techniques often live in the same poem to great effect. This is a state of affairs I can fully endorse and applaud.

BS: Okay, pages 73 through 82 made me ugly cry. There is a poem involving a jock strap that made me snort outright, and Kim Lozano’s “At The Titanic Museum” brought on bittersweet nostalgia for an experience I’ve never actually had. I imagine readers will run through a lot of emotions before they hit the end of this anthology. Did reading all this stuff make you feel like you were losing your mind entirely?

OE: Losing my mind with joy perhaps. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I will say that it was a process that renewed my faith in poetry and American letters. We found such a wide range of work and so much incredibly strong work as we read, it became painfully difficult to cull the anthology down to the 254 pages it ended up being.

BS: Can you speak a bit about The Heartland Poetry Prize, its relationship to the anthology, and what role Lee Ann Roripaugh played in this?

OE: Basically, we will find a new final judge for each edition of the anthology to pick three poems from those Hannah and I have selected. The authors of those poems will receive $100 each and be listed in the front of the anthology. There is not a first, second, and third place here. All are equal winners. To be culled from the poems included is honor enough and to rank them further would be mere hairsplitting.

BS: How were these poems selected? Do you think an anthology like this would be possible without a rich pool of literary journals supporting upcoming poets and helping them get their work into the world?

OE: I asked only one person, Hannah Stephenson, to co-edit with me, and I was lucky she said yes. I had published some of Hannah’s poetry in Mayday Magazine and followed her work and admired it greatly. She’s been a joy as a collaborator, and I can’t think of anyone I would rather co-edit this and future editions with.

Hannah and I just read all of the poems, usually a few times each, and voted on them. We had very few disagreements, which was good, but we also gave each other a handful of executive choices to make sure we both got poems we really believed in into the anthology. And since all the poems had to be previously published in a journal or book to be considered for the anthology, the very existence of the anthology is dependent on there being lots of great journals and presses out there. I think we are living in a great time for publishing, and the huge body of submissions we received for the anthology is evidence of that.

New Poetry from the Midwest 2014 edited by Okla Elliott and Hannah Stephenson (New American Press | 9781941561010 | June 2, 2015)

Betty Scott

Erstwhile bookseller Betty Scott lives in the Chicago area and has a serious cinema habit. When not reading or watching movies, she writes reviews, poetry, and fiction.