The February 2013 issue of Washington and Lee's literary journal, "Shenandoah," will feature a special portfolio of New Zealand poetry edited by W&L English professor Lesley Wheeler and two seniors, Drew Martin and Max Chapnick.
Wheeler, an award-winning poet, wrote in one of her blog posts that she took on the Shenandoah assignment because she wanted a new experience — creative, professional and pedagogical. And, she added, she got what she wanted "with a vengeance."
The challenge for Wheeler and her co-editors was choosing 25 poems from among about 500, approximately five poems each from 103 poets. As it turned out, the co-editors agreed on almost nothing. They did settle unanimously on three poets, but all the others required considerable deliberation.
Wheeler initially chose Martin as her sole co-editor. He is a business administration major and a creative writing minor who described English as "where my heart belongs but not where my mind is headed generally." As Wheeler related, she chose to bring him onto the Shenandoah project following one class session when he had argued that moving a line in a poem by a prominent poet would make the poem stronger. "It was incredibly impudent," said Wheeler, "but he was also right. So I thought he would be a good person to have sustained arguments with about poetry."
Recognizing that their disagreements would only end in tie votes, Wheeler and Martin decided to add a third co-editor and Chapnick, a physics and English double major, was invited.
Wheeler described her co-editors as talented, opinionated and forthright. Over several weeks they wrangled over the submissions, each bringing his or her own personal biases, and eventually agreeing on17 poems.
As a song writer and a performer, Martin had a penchant for poetry with oral energy that would sound good as a performance piece. He also enjoyed poems he could immediately relate to and know what the poet was feeling.
"I consider myself an English nerd so I like allusion and references and more intellectual poetry," said Chapnick.
Wheeler had three criteria for a poem: power, complexity and control. She also looked for poetry that provokes strong feelings and reactions. "When we're fighting about a poem, that's a good sign in a lot of ways," she said.
The co-editors ultimately ended up with seven slots left to fill but total disagreement on which poems to select. So it came down to bargaining and "you can have this one, if I can have that one."
In a blog entry, Wheeler admitted she is wary of graduate students at other magazines filtering out unfashionable poems, poems that allude to sources beyond their own reading and poems about getting older. "In fact, I did like the poems about parenthood and middle-aged chagrin more than Drew or Max did, and they liked poems of youthful urgency more than I tended to," she wrote. "But I wanted to work with them partly because of these differences.
"I have some regrets over rejected poems," she added. "I liked a number of pieces whose virtues I never managed to articulate convincingly enough to my co-editors. But every poem that will appear had a fervent champion."
Wheeler, who spent the first half of 2011 in New Zealand on a Fulbright grant, pointed out that most Americans know very little about New Zealand writing, and she and her co-editors tried to get a balance of geographic and ethnic or racial diversity as well as writers who are academically oriented and those who are not.
Martin noted that there is a deep-seated conflict in New Zealand culture between the traditions of European settlers and Māori ways of understanding the world, so they included poems with different perspectives on the colonization process. They also included poems about the beautiful New Zealand landscape as well as environmental disasters such as the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, which caused serious damage and killed 185 people.
Once they survived the experience of arguing their way through the poems, Wheeler, Martin and Chapnick tackled writing the introduction and deciding the layout of the issue. It was a complicated process that included sorting through photographs and notes on the poems, deciding where to follow New Zealand spellings or American usage, and working closely with site designer Jim Groom (University of Mary Washington). They intended to write one section of the introduction each and then blend the parts into one voice but in that process, too, their styles and attitudes just turned out to be too dissimilar. "We’re revising the introduction now," remarked Wheeler, 'and it just seems more honest, and perhaps makes for more lively reading, to acknowledge our differences there, too."
"We're grateful to Rod Smith, the editor of "Shenandoah" for giving us the chance to do this," said Wheeler. "As a teacher, I've never run an internship like this before and it's been really fun."
"This is a great thing about coming to a liberal arts college," said Martin. "I'm highly focused on my business major, but at the same time W&L affords me the opportunity to work on a great project like this that would be considered tangential to my major. Of course, you can find a lot of overlaps in skills that are necessary for business too, in terms of communication with authors and compromise."
"It's been an interesting experience that makes me consider editing or something in publishing as a profession," said Chapnick, "because you're taking someone whose work may not be well-known and elevating them to a wider audience and allowing other people to appreciate their work. I think that's really cool."
Founded in 1950 by a group of Washington and Lee University faculty and students, "Shenandoah" has achieved a wide reputation as one of the country's premier literary magazines. Its website can be found at
http://shenandoahliterary.org/ and Volume 62, Number 2, containing the poetry portfolio from New Zealand, will launch by the end of February