Last spring, GMR celebrated its first twenty-five years with a 400-page poetry retrospective compiled by Founding Editor Neil Shepard. This was also Neil’s last issue before stepping down as Senior Editor. To read through this anniversary issue is to marvel at the institution that Neil built over the last quarter century, and as we prepare to launch our new issue, the first in a new generation of GMR, it seems important to acknowledge Neil’s profound contribution to living literature. Toward that end, reprinted below is Neil’s introduction to the anniversary issue published last spring. –The Editors
Editor’s Introduction to GMR‘s 25TH ANNIVERSARY RETROSPECTIVE ON POETRY (vol. 25, no. 1 (Spring 2012))
How enlivening, enlightening (and exhausting!) to read back through almost 50 issues of Green Mountains Review in search of the best poems, interviews, and essays on poetry to be published in the past quarter-century. There were thousands of texts I still remembered–specific maneuvers in a line or line-break, specific words and sounds that still unlocked their music and mystery, images and ideas that still sparkled, riveting narratives or audacious resistances to narrative and lyric form. Most of the pieces still bore an overall gravitas or wit (or both), an underlying intelligence to whose wisdoms I had originally acceded. All of these delights I experienced again. And then came the difficult task: to pick and choose among the thousands of texts the 100-plus I could truly not resist, those pieces gathered here in GMR’s 25th Anniversary Retrospective issue.
Beyond the immediate anxiety of selecting the “greatest hits,” there loomed a more perplexing question: how could we make this issue more than a commemoration of the past, a self-satisfied monument of cold marble (or worse, a paperweight . . . a doorstop)? How could we breathe life into it? My answer: we’d commission a “talk-back” series from our authors, a section where writers responded to the work they had originally published in GMR, assessing the literary climate that had spawned their work and analyzing how their responses to it had transformed over time.
More than half the poets included in this issue took up the challenge and wrote essays that are every bit as compelling as the work they originally published with us, sometimes providing back-stories for the poems, interviews, and essays; or critiquing their work from the vantage of many years (especially if the work was heavily revised for reprint in book form); or providing stories of the work’s “after-life,” whether selected for the Best American series, collected in a book publication, or optioned for a movie! Of particular interest to me were the answers of what I’ll call here “the three Davids”: David Wojahn, who had written a seminal essay on memory-narrative poetry, an important ”movement” of the late 1980s and early 1990s that produced some marvelous work–now a seemingly forgotten bit of poetic history; David St John, who had written an essay “On Memoir and Mystery,” warning young poets not to publish nonfiction memoirs because it sapped the same juice they used to write the poems–well, we all know how seriously our young poets took that warning!; and David Mura, who wrote a provocative essay back in the early 1990s on multicultural writing in America, railing against the hegemony of the white, heterosexual, male literary establishment. How had their ideas changed, or remained constant, since the publication of their original essays in GMR?
To some extent, the biases of our former special issues have shaped the kind of poetry represented in this 25th retrospective issue: for instance, several lengthy memory-narrative poems, which originally appeared alongside David Wojahn’s essay in 1988, appear again in our current issue; there’s also a rich sampling of humorous verse as a result of our 15th anniversary issue on contemporary American comic poetry; there’s a wandering tribe’s worth of apocalyptic poets due to our 20th anniversary issue on poetry of the American apocalypse; and there are poems of identity politics aplenty, due to the issue, back in 1993, on multicultural writing in America. Beyond that, the poems arrive in most of the traditions available to us today–formal and free verse, narrative and lyric, hybrid forms and decentered texts–the commonality among them being, as we had hoped from the beginning of GMR, excellence, according to our lights as editors.
Among the pleasures and serious services of a retrospective issue–just as with any anthology–the editor has a chance to revive interest in a poet or a poetic movement that has fallen out of favor. To my mind, the memory-narrative poem deserves such a revival and re-examination. It sits somewhere between the traditional narrative and the destabilized memory poem, employing disjunctive or circular storytelling techniques gleaned from modern fiction and creating a metatextual dimension to the story it tells by obsessively questioning the reliability of memory. Thus, the memory-narrative occupies a place similar to other hybrid forms–the prose-poem, the language-lyric– both of which combine traditional techniques with radical experiment. The memory-narrative poem, I believe, was a more radical form than its practitioners realized at the time, and it certainly anticipated the shape of poems to come.
Finally, in reading back through 25 years of issues, I’m interested to see how GMR tracked (or, one hopes, helped shape) the literary debates and movements of the time: whether championing memory-narrative poems by Larry Levis and Mark Doty; or formal poems by Molly Peacock and H.L. Hix; or language experiments by Dara Wier and G.C. Waldrep; or hybrids such as prose-poems by Russell Edson and Peter Johnson, language-lyrics by Paul Hoover and Quan Barry, or acrostic abecedarians by Barbara Hamby and Matt Schumacher. Sometimes, the poem’s dazzle was not a matter of fashion or swagger; simply, as Ezra Pound once said about the masters (or masterful poems), they managed to assimilate the experiments of former poets and galvanize them together in this very poem. Reading back through a quarter-century’s worth of literature, I admire both the poems that shape, challenge, or unsettle their time, as well as the poems that assimilate, distill, and crystallize the experiments of the past; I hope they’re all brilliantly on display in GMR’s 25th Retrospective Anniversary on poetry.
Latest posts by Neil Shepard (see all)
- On From Sorrow’s Well: The Poetry of Hayden Carruth by Shaun T. Griffin, ed. - April 10, 2015
- Neil Shepard on the First 25 Years of GMR - January 9, 2013