An Interview with The Paris Review's Meghan O'Rourke
As a successful poet, critic, and magazine editor, Meghan O’Rourke has a uniquely three-dimensional perspective on the publishing world of poetry and literature. We thought she’d be the perfect person to talk with for our editor interview series.
Formerly a literary editor at The New Yorker, Meghan now serves as a culture critic at Slate and as a poetry coeditor at The Paris Review. A book of her poems, Halflife, was released in 2007, and a memoir, The Long Goodbye, will be published by Riverhead in 2011.
Meghan kindly answered questions about her current projects, her varying roles as editor and writer, and the editorial process at The Paris Review. // Adam Eaglin
Can you tell us a bit about your role at The Paris Review?
I’m one of two poetry editors, which means I select poems (with my fellow editor). We read the “slush” pile of unsolicited poems, and we also solicit work from poets we admire. Sometimes we make suggestions to the poets about the poems. The job is pretty much like any other poetry editor’s job, except for the fact that there are two of us, so we have to agree. The idea is that together we create a bit of check and balance, so that we can try to be objective about the work. It also makes sure the poetry doesn’t stay too similar, I think. First I worked with Charles Simic, now I work with Dan Chiasson. In both cases our tastes overlap somewhat but not entirely, which means each of us sometimes champions and publishes a poem the other might not have gone for. I find it extremely illuminating to do this work with another writer—it’s like getting an intimate tour of another writer’s mind.
At TPR, do you feel an obligation to publish younger (or “emerging”) poets?
I do feel an obligation—though that’s too dour a word. It’s a joy to publish younger, emerging poets, because of the sense of discovery and charge that can come with it. But yes: the magazine was started by young writers, and has always been a home to emerging poets.
Under Philip Gourevitch’s tenure as editor of The Paris Review, the magazine began to publish more poems by fewer poets. In recent issues, this seems to have relaxed somewhat. Have you appreciated the change? How do you see TPR’s approach to poetry evolving in the future?
We try to publish two issues with “folios” a year, and two with “showcases.” A folio is our highly technical term for a larger group of poems, say, four to six; showcases comprise one to two. We still aim to publish roughly that ratio, but sometimes we do it out of order.
You are a culture critic at Slate and a poetry coeditor at The Paris Review, not to mention a successful poet and writer. How do you find the time?
Insomnia! I mostly write at night. But it’s also the case that, for me at least, all this work informs the other work—meaning that when I’m reading for The Paris Review, it’s helping me think about the kind of ambition, scope, and originality I want in my poems, too; writing criticism for Slate connects me to broader currents of national or popular feeling and thought I believe are important to poetry, marginalized though it may be.
Many poets disagree over the merits of designating a “Poetry Month.” Do you have an opinion?
Well, there’s something a little instrumental about it, or mechanistic, and such things have little to do with “poetry” itself. On the other hand, I think it helps give poetry a foothold in this cacophonous world—a little air pocket it needs. And as FSG surely knows, getting books reviewed in papers, making sure books are in stores—all that’s an important part of publishing, and National Poetry Month helps with all that. I’m not saying anything groundbreaking.
Drawing from your personal experience, you’ve recently turned your attention toward the role of grief in modern culture, including in a forthcoming book. Can you tell us about the book?
My mother died on Christmas of 2008, and in the weeks afterward, I was stunned by how unprepared I was for the enormity of my grief, and the loneliness of it. What was lonely was the feeling that everyone wished me well and wanted to help, but no one had a language for that—or rituals that might help descant the awkwardness into scripted repetition or form. I suppose, given that I’m a poet, it’s not surprising that I felt ritual would help me; some people don’t. But I craved some FORMS in which to put my grief. So I began writing about what grief was really like from the inside out—the strange physiological changes, the obsessive remembering, the intense nostalgia. The book, I suppose, is a record of the experience, and a kind of implicit argument that we’ve lost something important as we’ve tried, in our avoidant way, to marginalize death in our culture.
Related: The Paris Review website features a wealth of recordings, interviews, and poetry.