An Interview with jubilat's Robert Casper
Alyson and I are big fans of jubilat, a poetry journal published at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, so we reached out to cofounder and publisher Robert Casper to chat about the magazine. In addition to his role as publisher, Rob also serves as Program Director at the Poetry Society of America.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, jubilat has gained a following for its distinctive aesthetic and unique combination of genres. In the words of the magazine itself: “jubilat has aimed to publish not only the best in contemporary American poetry, but to place it alongside a varied selection of reprints, found pieces, lyric prose, art, and interviews with poets and other artists. Rather than section off these varieties of work, the magazine creates a dialogue that showcases the beauty and strangeness of the ordinary, and how experiments with language and image speak in a compelling way about who we are."
I spoke with Rob on the phone Wednesday, and he elaborated on the magazine’s goals and editorial process—as well talking about the type of work that, as an editor and reader, continues to excite him.
// Adam Eaglin
Tell our readers a bit about jubilat.
jubilat started ten years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. I started it with two other graduate students, basically out of our conversations arguing about poems with each other and drinking a lot [laughs]. I found those conversations deeply engaging and surprising and felt we could make a magazine that would somehow represent them. At the time of the magazine’s inception, we had just taken a class called “Form and Theory in Contemporary American Poetry” with Dara Wier . . . What was striking was that [Wier] framed contemporary poetry in historical terms, and included all these texts without explaining why she did so. In that spirit the editors of jubilat and I started the magazine by publishing reprints, found works, interviews with non-poets, and the like, and instead of quartering off or sectioning off, put them alongside contemporary American poetry. We sought to illustrate the way that contemporary poetry does not exist in a vacuum, but instead connects us both to literary history and to our life experiences. The work of the present is continually in conversation with the past, as well as itself . . . Plus, we wanted a magazine that almost fit in your back pocket.
What does your editorial process entail?
We have readers who are graduate students at the U-Mass in the MFA program who read through all the submissions and pass their favorites along to the editors and myself. We accept only online submissions. We publish about 2 percent of what we receive. It’s low, but a higher percentage than magazines like Poetry magazine or The Paris Review.
How does a poet (or his/her poems) stand out to you in a crowded slush pile?
Once upon a time, I went to a talk Peter Davidson gave at Emerson College. He said the best work forces you to slow down, and I think that’s very true. When I see a good poem—a poem I respond to, amidst other poems that I’m going to easily reject—I start to pay a lot more attention, because the poem asks that of me. It’s easy in five or ten lines to get a sense of how a poem may engage in imagery that is surprising, in a rhetoric that is not clichéd, in a voice that seems authentically searching. And likewise you can spot when people are doing just the same old thing pretty quickly after seeing thousands and thousands of submissions.
Do you have any favorite emerging writers that have appeared recently in your pages?
Arda Collins, who was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize; Carmen Giménez Smith, who has a book out from the University of Arizona Press; and Jericho Brown, who also has one book out. All three of them were also featured in the Poetry Society’s 2009 New American Poets list.
Do you make it a deliberate goal to seek out new poets?
Definitely. Our real aim is not just to publish poets we love, but also to find poets and to be able to claim them as poets we can publish first. A magazine always has to share its authors with other magazines, but we hope to celebrate and discover as many important poets as possible.
Through three different editorships, do you think you’ve focused on preserving the continuity of the magazine’s aesthetic from its first few issues through the present, or are you steering in a new direction?
That’s an interesting question. We’ve had three groups of editors. The first two, Michael Teig and Christian Hawkey, edited issues 1 through 10. The second set, Terrance Hayes and Jen Hervin, did issues 11 through 13. And the current set, Cathy Park Hong and Evie Shockley, have done the last three. I think Christian, Michael, and I established a certain kind of aesthetic, set the parameters of our aesthetic and our concerns . . . all editors have is their particular take on the work they publish, which comes out through their decisions. I don’t believe our magazine or any magazine simply publishes “the best established and emerging poets regardless of school, region, or reputation.” I think we have a specific idea of what types of poems we’re interested in, even if we don’t state that in definite terms. When we switched editors, for example, I found that Jen and Terrance joined jubilat out of their excitement for what we were publishing, and they wanted to continue that. By the time we got to issue 11, people knew who we were and what type of poems we were interested in.
What type of poems are you interested in?
Lyrical and playful, and willing to experiment—but not in a sort of self-conscious mode, but with a larger psychic aim in mind. And with real heart. Though many poems we publish employ irony, I think ultimately we search out poems with sincerity, but sincerity in a different kind of form: more inventive, more contemporary. Not the sincerity of easily graspable narrative, but the sincerity that only comes out with the great engagement with language that lyrical poetry has historically been noted for. The magazine has continued to go in this direction, albeit with more and more possibilities, as it gets bigger and more and more people can be included.
We’re celebrating this year our tenth anniversary, so it’s been an exciting time to look at what we’ve done and ways in which we can move forward.