The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 20, 2009

Nick Twemlow of The Canary & Canarium Books Pt. 1: On Curatorial Editing

Among the vast number of literary magazines and journals out there, The Canary, which I've sadly come to learn is on (hopefully a very short) hiatus, is among the most special. I got the tremendous opportunity to interview one of its editors, Nick Twemlow, for The Best Words In Their Best Order. Nick is also a poet in his own right, and the founding editor of Canarium Books whose first two books of poetry Union! by Ish Klein and The Tangled Line by Tod Marshall were published this month. In this first part of our interview, Nick gives us compelling insights into his editorial process and his endeavors for a more curatorial way of editing for The Canary. Enjoy, and please check by later today for more literary insights from Nick!

-Angie Venezia


FSG: Tell us about The Canary and Canarium Books.

Nick Twemlow: The Canary is an annual magazine of poetry, founded by Joshua Edwards in Eugene, Oregon in 2001. Josh and Anthony Robinson edited the first two issues. They invited me to coedit beginning with issue three, and I thank them both; editing The Canary and Canarium Books has been a tremendous, life-changing endeavor for me, and though the magazine end of the small press venture is on hiatus (perhaps like Roswell, Cagney & Lacey, and Star Trek, with enough fan support, The Canary will live to see another season), Canarium Books launched its first two titles this month, Union! by Ish Klein, and The Tangled Line, by Tod Marshall.

The press, which is committed to publishing 2-3 titles each year, with at least one a work in translation, is supported in part by the University of Michigan MFA Program in Creative Writing, in the form of financial assistance and an internship program that employs the terrific writing students in the MFA program. I edit the books series with Josh, Robyn Schiff, and Lynn Xu.

FSG: As The Canary is an annual magazine, do you and your fellow editors find it difficult to decide on the few poets that do end up appearing? Can you tell us about your editorial process?

NT: Our editorial process likely resembles that of many literary magazines: each of us takes a pile of poems from the slush that we like; we winnow that down after each of us reads the other piles; and then we ask my cat, Sock Puppet, which one he likes. He's very picky, thankfully, and has considerable good taste, so really, the decision-making process is out of our hands early on.

That said, I remember once The Canary being criticized (somewhere in some blog's comments field) for representing a sort of mainstream experimentalism, and we were bunched together with, if memory serves, Fence and jubilant as exemplars of this apparently mushy, strip-mall (strip-mined?) version of American avant-garde poetry. This commenter went on to say something I've never forgotten. To paraphrase, he said that if The Canary were to publish a poem by John Taggart (we never have), it would not be the same as if a magazine like No, or Jacket, or some other more serious, muscular venue were to publish a John Taggart poem. He never clarified his remarks, so I was left to guess at what he might've meant. The implicit entitlement and arrogance of his comments aside, he was pointing to the very interesting issue of context, or the frame that a magazine--its editors, its history--provides the poems contained therein. This is an old argument, of course, but given the sheer number of literary journals in existence, print and online, one I think relevant.

Editing a journal is an act of curation. Part of a curator's responsibility is to make use of the venue, ensure that works exhibited interact with the space, that the viewers move in a way conducive to viewing whatever is on display in the best possible way, whatever that may be. So with editing. For example, I was looking through previous issues of The Canary, and settled on #5, specifically on a poem by Robert Fernandez "Study for a Pope II (After Bacon)," and the poem on the next page, "Asianamerican Halfbreed Trilogy" by Ed Go. Representative lines: Fernandez: "tan voice knocks on the black base, / sundown to the left of you, proud / hours of your hands like pastels / through the gap in the teeth--"; Go: "I'm into my early 20s / when i saw it as my duty to inform everyone of who i was / & what greatness i had come from / not the lies i had been taught / but truth about fireworks & ghengis khan / marco polo & Magellan."

As different as poems are from each other, they both catalog in similar ways, and both poems made me think of Frank O'Hara. Was O'Hara on either poet's mind when writing? Do they read him? Who knows. But I read O'Hara, and so I bring O'Hara to my reading. And though these two poems do more than just catalog, just as O'Hara is no mere list maker, it is this hunger to name, to contain the named things and the way they approach it that creates a conversation. When we found each poem independently in the slush pile, we knew that they would have a richer life together and it was important to us to publish them in the same issue. There are clear formal differences, but very similar instincts and obsessions. So you place them next to each other, and leave the rest to the reader. The editorial art that gives me most pleasure is curating a conversation between poems, between poem and reader.

And so, having looped back on myself with this question, I suppose I still don't know what this commenter meant, but the thinking it inspired was useful. Plus, I asked my cat about it, and he said he hadn't read any Taggart and thus remains indifferent.

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