An Interview with Mikey Swanberg, new RCR Poetry Editor

Photo by Traci Hercher  

Mikey Swanberg is the new Poetry Editor of Rabbit Catastrophe Review!  Read the interview below to get to know him.  He has big plans for the journal.

Robin LaMer Rahija: How did you get involved with RCR?

Mikey Swanberg: I was working at Limestone for the editor there, who unbeknownst to me, was also running a press with her husband. So, she, at some point, had found out that I wrote poems and asked me to submit to the journal, which I think I took a long time to do.  And then I did, and saw what they were making.  I sort of became interested in the possibility of making journals that size and taking that level of care with them.  So I sort of slowly had more of a consigliere role, doling out my own opinions, asked for or not asked for.  Ultimately, I reached the point where now they matter.

RLR: You are a poet.  Can you talk about your personal aesthetic as a writer, and how you think it influences you as an editor, if at all.

MS: I've been thinking about that a lot very recently, since I'll begin teaching soon and will have to pay attention to work that may not be ready yet.  The only thing that is exciting to me in poetry is being excited.  I come to any book, and it doesn’t matter the background of the person writing it or the topic.  For poets and writers, it’s just language that excites us. There're no real hurdles to jump.  Either you're doing something that's really exciting to me or you're not.

RLR: What would be a hurdle?  What do you mean?

MS: Let's say I was a formalist, or I only really loved persona poems. I can't hold that against people.  In my own work, I'm so sloppy, and so consistently starting in a form and then balking against it, that I won't even notice if somebody slips out of the form they're working in.  I have been mentally comparing it to how I think about my body, or our bodies, and how we interact with attraction.  You just know when you are attracted to something.  It doesn't have to fit into any mold or idea that you previously thought you were attracted to.  You're just wandering around, and you're like, “that's a good looking bell tower.” And all of a sudden you're like, “wait i don't care about bell towers,” but then - you understand what i'm saying.

RLR: Yes, that's a good analogy.

MS: Well thank you.  A better definition would be Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s take on pornography.  It's the same with poetry.  I know it when I see it.  Real poetry.  Good poetry.

RLR: What makes you qualified to edit the journal?

MS: I actually care about it.  I take the work seriously.  I think nothing about my career as a writer makes me specifically qualify.  It's my history as a reader that does that. We all start as readers before we start as writers.  As long as you pay attention to what keeps moving you as a reader, you become a better editor.  You train your ear.  In that regard, I've spent a lot more time reading than writing.  So that helps.  And I like it.  I'm willing to sit and read 35 poems a day from people I've never met before.

RLR:  In what directions would you like to move the journal?

MS: We've talked about doing something about collaborative writing, which is something that the editor of the journal and I are very interested in ourselves. Right now the journal has a pretty good balance of more straight forward narrative work and more experimental, even to some extend, sound-work, like things that are working sonically. I think that makes sense to keep that balance and get a readership that respects our opinions based not on just one criteria.  Many of the poems that will be in Poetry Magazine you can tell they were going to be in Poetry Magazine.  Because they're very good, but also because they hit the right notes.  They're doing everything.  There’s nearly a formula to some of them.  That's not something I am interested in creating or judging.  I just want to be engaged.  Above all, I want to be entertained and taught something, whether that's about fly-fishing or my own humanity. 

RLR: Do you think journals that create a specific aesthetic for themselves are limiting.  Or is it just about personal interests and priorities of the journal?

MS:  It's personal interest.  Christian Wiman and Don Share are the guys who've been running the journal forever, and they know what they like.  And so that means Rae Armantrout has a poem in every issue for the last twenty-five years. (kind-hearted laughter).  In five issues from know, everyone could be like, “Oh that guy only liked this, because we can see what he's chosen.”  Then I will eat my hat. For the time being I don't think it is limiting to really know what you're after when you're trying to collect poetry. But I'm after a lot.

RLR: Besides highlighting collaborative work in the future, are there other themed issues or projects that you would like to work on?

MS: It would be really great to do an issue of all women writers.  That's something that I'd be interested in doing.  And also an LGBTQ issue.  Another interesting thing would be to publish only writers of a certain age.  Issue 10 will be only writers that are 10 years old.  It will be our best selling issue.

RLR: Why is age an important marker of a writer's life?

MS: I think there's a lot of expectation, at least in my life, to have certain things completed at certain times.  As an artist or writer, you watch your friends who studied business start ticking off supposed life-things a lot sooner than you do.  But the average incoming age of an MFA student is 27, which seems really late considering that most people graduate around 21 from undergrad.  So there's a big pocket of time that, if you're writing for all that time, and you should be if you're trying to get an MFA, you're sort of watching this other thing happen too.  It’s a cultural and private or intimate thing which is a sort of delayed gratification.  Age is important because age is a great representation of those cultural markers and our desire to say, like, “I'm 25. I should have done so-and-so, and by 30 I will have done this.”  But the fact is that by 30 most people will just be graduating their MFA programs, or just finishing that first book or collection.

RLR: What would be an interesting age-group to collect together?

MS: 18-year-olds

RLR: ...

RLR: Are you joking?

MS: No, I'm not joking.  It's before they know to be embarrassed.  Obviously you go through high school as a person.  And it goes well or it doesn't.  But at that point, most people are just really new to writing in any sort of truthful way.  They overstep their bounds frequently.  It's really brave.  Maybe it'd be interesting to do people who are 1 year out of undergrad.  Not necessarily of a certain age.  But that's just a death sentence - just a bleak wall of time.

RLR: What books would you recommend?

MS: I've been reading Infinite Jest.  I don't think I'd recommend it.  The pain-to-pleasure ratio is so low.  So horribly low.  I wouldn't date it if it were a person, with the amount of times it makes me feel good compared to the times it makes me feel bad.  I read Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars, which I keep talking about but haven't re-read, which I think is a good sign.  It's the tea bag and I'm just steeping, or I'm the tea bag and it's the cup of water.  I don't know.  I keep thinking about it. For me, initially, if I really like something, I only just like it.  It's hard for me to say critically what it is about it.  That's not always the case.  When I read and loved Michael Dickman’s Flies, which won the James Laughlin Award, I could see how the poems were laid out and knew that was also having an effect on me.  Whereas, Life on Mars is less clear than that.  When I am less in love with the power of that collection, it will be interesting to spend time looking at how it works, as opposed to just knowing that it does work.

I've been having this thought a lot, when I was in workshops all the time.  Once anything is bound in a book, a tangible thing, it escapes, in a lot of ways, my critical eye.  When you are in workshop, you get a piece a paper.  It's flat on the desk - it might as well be the desk.  And you hammer it out, and you add and subtract.  It's a completely different feeling than laying in your bed reading something or sitting on the train.  I'm not going to edit someone's poem on the train.  I don't want to be doing work on my way to work.  That's one of the interesting things about journals, or any publication, is that, ready or not, a piece steps into the world and is done.  The journal is the kiln, and it comes out and that's that.  Permanent.  In a good way, I think.  In a way that lets out our mistakes, as either writers as editors.  It lets jumps be made.  Like mental jumps.  Even if there's a mistake in the poem or something that an editor may not have loved but agreed to let go anyway, we don't know, it's out of our hands, and that's a good thing.  Everybody's moved by different stuff.  It's our job to make sure that it's pretty good, and then let the readers be moved by whatever part of it they want.

RLR: Would you say there's more chaos or surprise or jumps involved in a journal?

MS: It does depend on who submits. If chaos is the right word, then I think there's more chaos in a journal.  A manuscript collection moves you toward a couple moments of elation or pure mystery kissing, whatever.  Whereas in a journal, you get everything.  Ideally, it's salsa.  Linguistic stir-fry.  I must be hungry.

RLR: What's your advice for submitters to RCR?

MS: If you don't like your poem that much, please don't send it to me.  But also, don't be afraid to send work that you're scared is doing something that you're not sure about.  I'll make big jumps with you.  So I don't need something to be perfect.  I need something that's grand.  But also consider me someone who you have met at a party that you're trying to talk to.  You wouldn't sit and tell somebody only really sad stories, or only jokes. As human beings we have all these things about ourselves.  We’re funny and then we're serious.  So...just send me what you've got, if it's good, or if it’s something that you are wishing you hadn't personally written.

RLR: What would be your one word bio?

MS: I don’t know.  "Guy?"

RLR: It doesn't have to describe you or your work.  It doesn't have to be an adjective.  It can just be a word you identify with.

MS:  A word I'm drawn to and that I have to keep editing out of poems all the time is the word “wild.”  But I don't' think it's my bio.  I just write it in every single poem.  And then I have to take it out.  If you did a word search of my work for “wild,” you would be like, “what is going on here. Why is that there?”

RLR: So what you're saying is, if someone submits a poem with the word “wild” in it, you won't accept it?

MS: I probably will.  I love that word!  But for my bio, I'll chose "seltzer."  It captures my evanescent personality. (humble laughter).