Interview with Poet and Editor Jill Khoury
You recently put out the third issue of your new online journal Rogue Agent. With the abundance of online venues out already, what prompted you to begin your own?
JK: I hadn't noticed any other journals dedicated to embodied poetry. There are, for example, journals for disability poetry, or journals for queer poetry, African-American poetry. or the poetry of motherhood—but at the center of all these poetries of identity lies the body. With Rogue Agent, I want to bring different (really, myriad) identities together while still celebrating what makes us unique. That is my goal for the journal, but I think there's a way to go before it reaches its potential.
Beyond that, I have noticed a tendency, in certain subsets of the poetry community, to discredit poetry of the body as being sensationalistic, taboo, or a type of poetry that we may have needed at one time, but not anymore. Embodied poetry is not only valid, but necessary, and I wanted to stake a claim on a patch of internet real estate to say so.
WG: Can you elaborate on what you mean by embodied poetry for those who may not know the term and perhaps give us an example that illustrates it?
JK: Embodied poetry as a concept is not new, and it probably has multiple definitions depending on who you ask. For the purposes of Rogue Agent, embodied poetry is that which takes as its central subject some aspect of the body or some direct consequence of living in a certain body. Examples can be found in our issues or in the "For Inspiration" section on our website. Two very different examples are Terrance Hayes's "How to Draw a Perfect Circle," from the Poetry Foundationundation and from Issue 2, "Tender Points" by Jen Stein.
WG: The Hayes, Stein and other poems in your "For Inspiration" section are definitely a great tool for helping writers get a sense of the kind of work you might be looking for. I'm wondering if we can go in the other direction and have you talk about what you don't want to see in a poem. What are some things that might not be readily apparent to the poet sending it but that might cause you to reject a poem ?
JK: What would make me reject a poem that is not readily apparent to the poet?
1) Poems that rely on gender and racial stereotypes. One way poets can fall into this trap is by not telling their own truth but trying to express someone else's. If you are appropriating someone else's story, it must be done with enormous compassion and skill. My advice is to write from within your own experience.
2) Poems that are basically prose with line breaks and make little to no use of poetic techniques. Are you paying attention to sound, rhythm, the compression of language that makes poetry happen?
3) Poems that are just not quite "done" —they need one or two more drafts. Keep revising and don't get too discouraged.
4) Sometimes rejection is just the luck of the draw. If I have published six poems about motherhood in the last two months, I'm probably not on the lookout for six more immediately.
In general, if you get a rejection with an invitation to resubmit—do it. Being asked to resubmit is a compliment on your work.
For Rogue Agent, a strong poem is one with concrete imagery, compelling language, and an element of risk and vulnerability.
WG: I'm interested in your statement, "One way poets can fall into this trap is by not telling their own truth but trying to express someone else's" with respect to race, gender and, of course, disability. Can you talk a little more about this? Poets frequently take on other persona's in their work. To what extent do you think that writing from another's point of view is every justified. What do you see as the dangers?
I think the questions to ask oneself when one has the impulse to tell the experience of a marginalized person (who is not the writer) should be 1) why is telling this story important to me? 2) am I truly the best person to tell this story? 3) why am I telling the story of this marginalized experience that is not my own instead of telling my own story?
This is a sensitive topic, and like I mentioned, there are differing opinions. I would rather hear authentic voices tell their stories about race, gender, or disability, than hear it filtered through someone else.
This is not to say that it can't be done. In C.D. Wright's 2007 volume of investigative poetry One Big Self, she and photographer Deborah Luster visit several prisons in Louisiana to document the experiences of those on the inside. How did she do it successfully? In her introduction she tells us her mission, "Not to idealize, not to judge, not to exonerate, not to aestheticize immeasurable levels of pain" (xiv).
To me, it's that last part that is perhaps the most subtle and egregious form of appropriation —"to aestheticize immeasurable levels of pain." When a person who has undergone pain and hardship transforms it into art, that can be a liberating and healing act. When a person borrows the pain of someone else for their own art, and the promotion of their own work, but it's the artist's voice that's the loudest… I don't really condone that. In my opinion, writers who would take on the painful experiences of another have to be skillful, sensitive, humble, and, perhaps most of all, let themselves be vulnerable in the work as well.
WG: Jill, thank you for taking your time to introduce Wordgathering readers to Rogue Agent. Best of luck with your journal.
JK:Thanks. I just want to express my continued gratitude and amazement for the writers and artists who make art in the embodied tradition, and thanks to Wordgathering for the opportunity to talk about embodied poetry and Rogue Agent.