Q&A - How have your opinions on the genres changed since joining Polyphony?
By Hannah Ramsey, Nithya Ramcharan, and Anika Mukker
When I first signed up to be a staff member for the magazine, I had envisioned the editorial process to comprise of me sitting down at my desk to read and review quality prose produced by some of the best young writers across the globe — the Brontës and Fitzgeralds of the high school literary world. Part of this was true as most of the pieces that were forwarded to me were exceptional, many possessing multifaceted storylines, riveting character development, and emotive diction. However, I was surprised that so many of the submissions I received were not samples of prose but instead poems. At the time, I didn't know that poetry is the most popular genre of work submitted to Polyphony or that, theoretically, over half of the pieces I would act on would indeed be poems.
I had no experience properly reading poetry, much less critiquing it. My loyalties lied with the familiar — fiction and creative nonfiction. Whereas I felt like a fraud telling a poet to "incorporate enjambment" or "modify that line break", I had considerable confidence in the commentary I produced for fiction and nonfiction submissions. When I would edit a short story or personal essay, I would enter a state of flow; it was enjoyable because I genuinely believed in the feedback I was providing to the author.
It wasn't that I didn't like poetry; it was more so that I had a difficult time sitting in the discomfort of not understanding it. I was terrified of misinterpreting the author or of sounding like I thought I knew their piece better than they did. In my mind, the opposite was true: I felt like I knew nothing.
I edited many of the submissions first sent to me from a mindset of fear, ruminating on how unqualified I was. Fortunately, this mindset was not fixed. As time went on, I started receiving feedback from higher-level editors that illuminated both the strengths and pitfalls of my comments. From their remarks, I learned how to approach poetry from the position of a humble investigator; I was taught to read each piece critically and with intentional curiosity, all the while being conscientious that my opinions were just that — opinions.
I started viewing each piece as if it were an abstract painting, one that I could draw personally relevant inferences from. It was in fostering this attitude towards poetry that I started to understand the vitality of artistic license, which has allowed for me to begin writing my own poems in a manner that is free of both judgment and restraint.
I will always be a creative nonfiction reader at heart, but I owe it to my experience editing at Polyphony for showing me that poetry is the foundation of virtually all other writing forms; lyricism and abstraction are hallmarks of poetry that imbue literature with its emotional impact and consequence.
I agree with Hannah. At first, while I was mainly comfortable with fiction and nonfiction, I honestly felt intimidated by poetry. Poetry seemed too out of reach for me, as it felt to me like it had the least rules—it was therefore hard for me to deem what kind of work was “worthy” of being accepted. For every element I criticized, my mind always came up with a reason why I shouldn’t, and that those elements were completely intentional and significant to the poem. As Hannah said, receiving feedback from senior editors helped me understand better what elements I should identify and use to make my judgment on poetry submissions. Receiving the diverse variety of poetry submissions from such talented submitters inevitably helped enrich my understanding of poetry. I never really disliked poetry either, but after joining Polyphony Lit, I grew to respect and enjoy it more.
Like Hannah and Nitya, I was most concerned about reading poetry when joining Polyphony. Although I have always loved reading poetry, my exposure to analyzing and commenting on the genre was very limited. Unlike our extensive coverage of both fiction and nonfiction prose, my English classes never covered poetry, and Polyphony was my first exposure to the literary journal scene. I was excited to explore something new and hear from such a wide array of voices, but not having familiarity to fall back on made editing the genre seem more daunting. Unlike the clear cut nature of prose, poetry also usually boasts more figurative language, ambiguity, and a general knack for going against grammatical convention.
In turn, I was scared of both being wrong and not having anything to say; however, joining Polyphony completely changed my perspective. Regardless of how many poems have landed on my docket, each and every one has been varied and unique. And for one, I have learned that there is not a wrong way to interpret a poem. All of our personal opinions, thoughts, and experiences shape the way we perceive poetry, and that’s what makes it such a beautiful form of expression. With that, there’s also always something to say: subtle differences in punctuation, structure, and diction have a great impact on the way a poem is perceived. Moreover, most poems warrant questions and discussion about figurative language, meaning, and thematic concepts. All of these factors are what make editing and reading poetry so enjoyable, and I can now confidently say that poetry is my favorite genre.
Hannah Ramsey is a co-Editor-of-Chief at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Nithya Ramcharan is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Anika Mukker is a Genre Editor at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.