The Poetess

Jody Bolz, 63, co-editor of Poet Lore, Bethesda

Photo by Len Rizzi

Poet Lore is a strangely well-kept secret. We’re getting the word out now because our 125th birthday is in 2014, so we’re doing a lot of national outreach.

There’s kind of a family tree of editors, starting with these two remarkable Victorian women, Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke, who wanted to found a magazine in 1889 that was going to discover people.

And they did. It’s incredible to look at the list of people they’ve published. When I was doing research, I found the entire text of Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull, first time in English.  

When Ethelbert Miller and I became executive editors, the first thing we did was to put the reading room in the Library of Congress from 1890 on the cover—an old photograph with a derby hat in the foreground—and we started writing editors’ notes. In every issue, there’s an editorial essay that says something about poetry.

We read 1,000 poems a month. One thing that I love about this work is I’m working with other poets on their poems. A lot of that is done by email. So on a day like today, I would check on some revisions I’ve suggested, see if the person has had time to think about it or if the person has revised the poem in a different way, and then go back and forth.

And then, part of every week is reading. That’s the quiet, both exhausting and really exciting part of the job. There’s this mix of dread and anticipation. You sit down at your desk and start to read, and a lot of it is not interesting—and then all of a sudden I’ll hit something and forget that I’ve got to get through 500 submissions this week. I just turn into a reader and think: Wow, that is a really baffling, interesting poem. What is that about? And I’ll read it again.

Ethelbert does that independently, and then we get together once a month for several hours at his house. We read the poems out loud to each other, and we fight, and we laugh. Sometimes we sing. And we make decisions. In any one month, we’ll take about 20 poems.

We don’t care where the person’s been published before. We’re very proud of publishing the first poem by a poet we believe in.

We had the experience of publishing a poem several years ago by a guy named Dwayne Betts. Now he has two books out, and he gave a speech at the University of Maryland. Dwayne made a big mistake when he was 16 and did something really dumb and was in prison, but he was writing at this remarkably high level. We took the poem, and he’s since read for us, and he’s told the story of how there he was in prison and someone actually read his work and judged it on its own merits, not based on what college he taught at.

You ask the average, intelligent American: “Do you read poetry?” And the person will say no. And guess what: At his wedding or at his mother’s funeral or his child’s christening, what’s someone going to look for? A poem. Because it speaks to us—across centuries and across countries. It’s this borderless, timeless thing.

A former Bethesda Magazine intern, Mary Clare Fischer is a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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