Dead Poem Society

lorin stein Dead Poem SocietyLast week, the new editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein, told The Observer that he and his recently installed poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, were preparing a “holy shit” poetry section for their first issue at the helm, due out Sept. 15.

“Robyn and I have been arguing about poems since we met,” said Mr. Stein. “I want our poetry section to be made up of showstoppers. I don’t want the poems merely to have integrity, or merely to be sophisticated-though I want those things.”

Then on Tuesday, at the culture blog We Who Are About to Die, the poet Daniel Nester posted the text of an email Mr. Stein had written to a poet whose work had been accepted before he assumed the helm: “Over the last month, Robyn and I have been carefully reading the backlog of poetry that we inherited from the previous editors. This amounts to a year’s worth of poems. In order to give Robyn the scope to define his own section, I regret to say, we will not be able to publish everything accepted. … We have not found a place for your three poems, though we see much to admire in them and gave them the most serious consideration.”

Holy shit is right. The poet on the receiving end of the note was not named, but Mr. Nester told the Transom that he had heard from at least three poets who had received similar notices from Mr. Stein.

“I’ve edited journals for 21 years,” Mr. Nester told the Transom. “I’ve never seen anything like this. At smaller journals, there’s honor among thieves. Maybe it’s a corporate thing. Or they’re just clueless.”

Elsewhere on the Internet, poets were invited to submit poems de-accepted by The Paris Review to a new online journal called The Equalizer. “Space is unlimited,” the announcement read. “If you want in, you’re in.”

“For good reason,” Robert P. Baird, a poet and former editor of Chicago Review, told the Transom, “those of us who care about the state of poetry have developed a kind of PTSD whenever they hear words like ‘shakeup.’ Change, we’ve discovered, doesn’t usually favor the poets. I’m firmly in favor of withholding judgment till we see what the new dispensation delivers, but I confess it doesn’t exactly set my heart at ease to hear that the PR is backing away from poems they’ve already accepted.”

“It’s never fun cutting things,” Mr. Stein told the Transom. “But an editor’s job is to put out a magazine by his or her best lights, and that means you have to have discretion over what you publish.”

Indeed, during the last editorial transition at The Paris Review, when Philip Gourevitch took the reins and appointed Meghan O’Rourke and Charles Simic as poetry editors, many poems accepted by the previous poetry editor, Richard Howard, were dispatched to the winds.

Dan Chiasson, who replaced Mr. Simic, a U.S. poet laureate, on the PR masthead in 2008, told Mr. Nester, “I do support Lorin and his vision for the magazine, which is why I was pleased to be asked to stay on as ‘advisory’ editor [along with Ms. O'Rourke]. I’ll personally look for other ways that I can help the poets getting bad news-it’s a top priority to make certain this work gets the recognition it deserves.”

Within the insular world of American poetry, where small journals proliferate, and many burn brightly for a time, but few for as long as the six-decade-old Paris Review, the poetry editor who is not also a practicing poet is a rare thing. Thus the appointment of Mr. Creswell-who is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at N.Y.U., has published poetry criticism in The Nation and Harper’s but has not pursued a career as a poet-took many poets by surprise.

“As far as writers and critics go,” Mr. Nester told the Transom, “Creswell seems to be the real deal. But as far as editing a literary journal, he should have an apprentice period. I mean, how did he get this job? Did he see Lorin Stein kill a man?”

Yet historically, many distinguished poetry editors have been non-poets, among them Poetry magazine founder Harriet Monroe, the late Raritan editor Richard Poirier and longtime New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn, now head of the Poetry Society of America. Rob Casper of jubilat and Joanna Yas of Open City are among non-poets now prominently editing poetry today.

Rebecca Wolff, a poet and the editor of Fence, said of Mr. Creswell: “All eyes will be on him to see if he can represent the breadth of different concerns in American poetry. He could be a living example of a non-poet with a deep interest in poetry, and that’s important at a time when poets seem to be the only people reading poetry.”