February 2005

Matthew Kirkpatrick

features

"Nothing but Poetry": 32 Poems

32 Poems publisher Deborah Ager laughs when I ask her about the significance of the number thirty-two. Her laughter tells me she gets this question a lot and not to make too much of it, although I'm not so sure. Because thirty-two figures so prominently in the name and concept behind the two-year old journal of poetry, it's easy to get hung up on the number. But there's something about the format that appeals to a person inundated with reading -- thirty-two is a manageable number of poems to read. The slim magazine doesn't weigh much and can be inserted into a larger book. Take it to work and break up the day with a poem, or read a few before bed. You can roll up the journal and stick in your back pocket to read at the dog park. Would thirty-five be unwieldy? I'm not sure, but thirty-two works, so why question it?

Twice a year, 32 Poems publishes poetry that you'll want to read from the best established and up-and-coming writers today in a reader-friendly format. The poems tend toward the short and lyrical, but something can be found for every taste. Editor John Poch explains that he prefers "verse that appeals to the ear as much as the other senses." They're the kind of poems that will keep you coming back to an issue. When facing a pile of unread literary journals with limited time, you can be pick up and read 32 in a few moments, whether re-visiting a favorite, or looking for something new. In the fourth and current issue of the Hyattsville, MD-based journal, standouts include "Rock" and "School" by Greg Williamson, "Halloween at 21" by Natalie Shapero, "Fabulous Ones" by Jeffrey Thomson, and "Gentle Boys" by Mark Yakich. In the third issue, Matthew Purdy's prose poem "Lunch Is the Moon" blew me away, as did "Saint Benedict" by Daniel Nester, "When You Hurled a Snowball in My Face" by Katey Nicosia and Austin Hummell's "Dr. Emeritus Speaks at the Department Meeting." But in a journal with such consistently well-chosen poems, it's hard to pick favorites, much less find something flat. The editors balance humor, seriousness, tradition, and experimentation while managing to find thirty-two noteworthy poems for every issue.

Deborah Ager had wanted to start a literary magazine for a decade. When she finally decided to turn her ambition into reality, she recruited fellow poet John Poch, a classmate from the University of Florida's M.F.A. program, to share editorial duties, and published their first issue in the summer of 2003. With Ager as Publisher and Poch as Editor, 32 Poems has grown to over three hundred subscribers and has become a non-profit, a move that Ager hopes will facilitate fund raising for the journal.

By design, the journal includes nothing but poetry. Ager sees this as a differentiator. When asked what makes 32 different, she says, "Smaller, thinner. No reviews or interviews. No essays, though we did that at first. Only poetry. There aren't that many journals doing that these days -- poems front to back, poems in the middle, nothing in the way of the poems." Focusing on one thing has worked. When you pick up a copy and flip through the pages, you find nothing but poetry. While that's not unexpected for a poetry magazine, more often than not you'll have to filter book reviews, essays, interviews, and articles. While those things have merit, by leaving them out, the emphasis stays on the poems.

"I would like to say that we don't have a particular aesthetic, but I'm sure it's there for anyone to see," Ager says when asked to describe her editorial vision. "John Poch and I both choose poems. Sharing that work, we keep it unpredictable. John's a wonderful editor; he'll choose a sonnet one day and then choose a free verse, experimental poem the next day. He's very shrewd and open-minded." "Our vision is one that many other journals claim," John Poch says. "And that is to publish the best poems being written while supporting a wide aesthetic. We publish formal poems (our last issue had a ridiculous number of killer sonnets) all the way across the spectrum to prose poems."

A dedication to poetry is a labor of love, and Poch and Ager clearly love poetry, both as accomplished poets themselves, but also as readers. When I asked John and Deborah to name some of their favorites poets, both listed poets they've published. "I asked Brigit Kelly for some poems because I love her work, and I included a copy of the 32 Poems," says Poch. "I never thought she'd send, but she apparently liked us and sent us that killer poem 'The Wolf.' She's not that prolific, so I didn't think I'd hear from her. I think Brigit could get a poem taken anywhere, and for her to send that poem to us, I knew we were doing something good." Both Kelly's "The Wolf" and Heather McHugh's "Ill-Made Almighty" from issue x have been selected for inclusion in the 2005 Best American Poetry anthology. Kelly was also recently nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award for her collection The Orchard.

Ager and Poch both count Richard Wilbur among their favorites as well. What John says about Wilbur says a lot about him as an editor. "I just read Richard Wilbur's new book, Collected Poems, over the Christmas break, and it's clear to me he's got to be considered a major poet along with the likes of Eliot, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, etc. I say this because I got a new book by a young writer I like, and I read it in an afternoon. And then I found myself reading a Wilbur poem, like 'Lying' for two hours and still wanting to spend more time with the poem. That's the difference in good poets and major poets, I think." Poch uses this gauge in looking toward the future of 32 Poems. "I'd like us to publish poems that will have our readers glued to a single page for an hour or two. I know a lot of readers want a more visceral experience with poetry, and I like that as well, but what's the poetry that's going to last?"

Deborah Ager complements the journal with a website and a great blog where she poses questions to her readers on topics like writing tools and work habits, and posts 32 Poems announcements and contests. Recently a discussion about Google whacking (try searching for "perimetrium sonnet" for an example of a Google whack) went on next to Ager's thoughts on juggling multiple projects and the dilemma of whether or not to focus on one thing at a time. Ager hopes the blog will help build a community around the journal and promote contributors with news on new books and awards as well as links to writers' websites. Ager has also solicited readers of the journal and blog to commit a few hours a month to meeting as part of a R&D group to brainstorm on ways to make the journal and website better. Ager's rare dedication and innovation shows in the consistent quality of the journal and its growing readership.

As for what's next, the recent non-profit status will allow Poch and Ager to do some fundraising. In addition to promoting the magazine and building readership, Poch would like to see the journal go perfect bound and Ager hopes to one day have an online archive of the journal. But beyond that, the future holds more great collections of poetry. "The fifth and sixth issues will be more of the same and as good as we can get it. We don't aim on changing too much." So, while I don't expect 35 Poems any time soon, readers can be guaranteed another thirty-two fine poems in their mailbox twice a year.

Check out 32 Poems website and blog.