The following is part of an interview series:
PRINT LITERARY JOURNALS in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW
via email in Spring 2019
What are the overarching themes that appear in each issue of Copper Nickel? In this sense, what differentiates it from other literary journals?
Copper Nickel is not a themed journal. I often like themed journals (I think Bennington Review manages themes as well as anyone these days), but for me themed journals too often either seem half-assed in their themed-ness, or else the theme controls the content to a fault. My sense was that if CN were organized around themes, we would likely fall into one of those traps.
At CN we try to differentiate ourselves by running several translation folios in each issue. We don’t just offer pieces in translation to our readers; we also ask that our translators write contextualizing introductions so our mostly American audience can at least catch a glimpse of the work’s original context. Our goal is not just to present international writers to an American audience; it’s also to set the American writers we publish in a broader context than American literature. All of us here at CN are committed to that idea, since we all feel that American literature has the potential to feel insular in a limiting way, that too often it speaks primarily to and about itself.
What is the motivation for producing a print literary journal in an era where digital publications are more common?
At least at the top tier, I don’t think digital publications actually are more common. Most of the top-tier journals are print with some sort of online component. So, a simple answer is that we aspire to be part of that cohort of top-tier journals.
But I also think it was hard five years ago—and continues to be hard—for a print journal to move to an entirely online format without the journal’s reputation taking a hit. Shenandoah and TriQuarterly are still very good magazines, but, unfortunately, my sense is that they wield less influence since shifting from print to online. There’s a general (and probably unfair) perception, I think, that they were somehow demoted when they went exclusively online. Whereas journals like AGNI, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry—which still offer print but also have robust online components—have continued to be top tier.
Copper Nickel began as a print journal in 2002, and when I took over the journal in 2014 it was clear to me that if my colleagues and I wanted to build on the journal’s history and reputation, we shouldn’t go exclusively online—we, too, would risk being “demoted.” I would love to enlarge our online presence (we currently roll-out occasional excerpts from our pages throughout the year), but we just don’t have the manpower or resources for that right now. Hopefully that’s something that can change in the next five years.
I should add that I don’t think journals that begin online are hurt at all by their online status. Journals like The Adroit Journal and Waxwing—currently two of the best journals in the country, in my opinion—are doing exceptionally well online. But that’s where they began, and somehow that seems to be different.
On CN’s website, I noticed its emphasis on the presence of “sociohistorical context.” Can you elaborate on this?
We’re not interested in work that’s overtly political. My colleagues and I generally don’t think political work is very rhetorically effective; it mostly just preaches to the converted. As Jericho Brown points out (I’m paraphrasing) in Michael Dumanis’s terrific interview with him, Natalie Diaz and Claudia Rankine were maybe the most read poets in 2016, the same year Trump was elected. Or as Zbigniew Herbert says (again, I’m paraphrasing), writing poems in an attempt to influence contemporary politics is mostly just an exercise in vanity.
That said, my colleagues and I are interested in poems that think about history and society, that “witness” our present historical moment, that aren’t entirely private or ahistorical. We all came to the journal sharing that interest—but it’s also been part of CN’s mission since the journal was founded by poet Jake Adam York, whose own poems were committed to memorializing martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. In our self-description on the website (and elsewhere), we want to telegraph our interest in work that is engaged with “public” concerns to help draw that sort of work. But we also want to make clear that that’s only one type of work we’re interested in. At the end of the day, we’re drawn to a pretty broad range, which is why we say our interest in work that considers sociohistorical context is particular but by no means exclusive.
During editing, what is it that makes a poem stand out? Are there any formal choices you look for?
I’m looking for work that initially surprises me—and then after that initial moment of surprise it becomes quickly clear to me that the surprise was integral or fundamental to the poem. I call this “apt surprise.” A surprise that doesn’t feel integral is merely a gimmick; yet, work that doesn’t surprise simply isn’t original or exciting. Surprises can be formal; for example, in our current issue we have a “sestina” by Brandon Amico in which the last word of every line is “Kansas.” At first that formal move is surprising and funny, but it quickly becomes clear that the core argument of the poem is about the inescapability of Midwestern roots, which is enacted by the playful form. The initial surprise, in other words, becomes integral. And there are many types of surprises—some I don’t know I’m looking for until I encounter them. I can be surprised by some unexpected way a subject is treated, or simply by a startling internal leap, or by how a poem approaches a particular subject or narrative, or by a unique image or really unique metaphor. I can be surprised by a poem’s length in relation to its subject.
To come back to form: I can be interested in a poem in a rote form either because of how the poem subverts a form or how it exploits a form. If a Petrarchan sonnet really torques its volta, I’m excited about that. I’m also potentially excited about a sonnet that sort of backs into its sonnet-ness—that, say, buries its rhyme so masterfully that I only notice halfway through reading that it rhymes. Randall Mann has an outstanding poem called “Ruin” that is a sonnet-ghazal. Not only does it rhyme like a sonnet, but it also repeats a phrase at the end of its couplets like a ghazal. That poem awed me when I first encountered it.
Poems that don’t interest me often just don’t seem fully committed to what they’re doing. They often don’t seem to lean hard enough into their formal choices/expectations, but seem a bit too timid about doing what they’re doing. Other poems don’t really use the poetry “toolbox” as much as they need. If I’m more than halfway through a poem and I can’t find a striking image, or a good metaphor, or a sense of rhythm, or a surprising line break, or an interesting use of voice, I usually move on. Still, other submissions seem to use received language in an unexamined way, which lately has become one of my chief pet peeves. We have so much language pushed onto us through advertising, politics, and social media; poetry should be a place I know I can go for conscious, examined language that comes from the poet herself—not from society puppeting her.
In what ways has Copper Nickel changed since its first few issues?
When I first arrived at CN in fall 2014, my colleagues and I had a long discussion about what we wanted to do with the magazine. We had the magazine’s previous history to build on, and after a fair amount of talking, we arrived at our vision. And thus far we’ve pretty much stuck with that vision: translation folios, occasional other features (such as our “flash fiction” feature and our feature of essays on publishing), literature with an awareness of context beyond America’s borders, a non-exclusive interest in “public,” sociohistorically engaged work.
The biggest change since our relaunch has been the institution of the Jake Adam York Prize for a first or second collection, which we run in collaboration with Milkweed Editions. The winning book is published by Milkweed, which is such an astonishingly good and ethical press—we’re just very grateful for their willingness to work with us. And whatever money is raised through reading fees above and beyond the cost of facilitating the prize goes toward paying CN contributors, currently $30 per printed page. We knew we needed to pay our writers, and we wanted to do so without asking the university for money (which we thought could hurt us down the road). The prize has allowed us to do that. And some outstanding books have won, which has been really exciting! Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin won the inaugural prize, and John McCarthy’s Scared Violent Like Horses is just out. And Brooke Matson’s In Accelerated Silence was chosen by Mark Doty for publication next year.
FIONA KOBASZ is a senior at Bennington College studying poetry, visual arts, and art history.
WAYNE MILLER is the editor/managing editor of Copper Nickel.