"Don’t Diffuse The Light; Shine It All."
A Chat With William Slaughter, Editor of Mudlark
William Slaughter is editor of Mudlark, an electronic journal of poetry and poetics, and author of The Politics of My Heart and Untold Stories, books of poems and essays, and Older Men, an e-chapbook. His work has been published in magazines ranging from Poetry (Chicago) to Exquisite Corpse in the United States; Malahat Review, Prism International, and Fiddlehead in Canada; Critical Quarterly (England), Poetry Australia, Frank (France), and People’s Daily in China, for example. He is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of North Florida, has had Senior Fulbright Lectureships to China and Egypt, and has twice taught at the Florida State University London Study Centre.
Interview by Annie Kim
“Never in and never out of print” is a tagline that Mudlark’s used for years. I’d add to that “never in or out of an issue,” since the journal accumulates new pieces all the time while keeping up older work. Can you talk about how and why you take this approach? What do you think are the benefits to readers and writers?
In point of fact, Mudlark has been “never in and never out of print” since 1995, when it was one of the very few serious literary projects that were pioneering—or, to borrow Howard Rheingold’s term for it, “homesteading”—on the electronic frontier, the then brand new World Wide Web. How to distinguish Mudlark as “An Electronic Journal of Poetry and Poetics” from all the other journals of its kind that would inevitably come along behind it in the new medium? That was one of the foundational challenges, or so it seemed to me, when I was thinking my way toward Mudlark: deciding how to structure its content.
I decided, early on, that I was going to run at Mudlark that rarest of things in the poetry world, a truly open shop. There would be no soliciting at Mudlark, I promised myself; I would never put up the equivalent of a “Members Only” sign. How, then, to attract the kind of poetry, “accomplished work that locates itself anywhere on the spectrum of contemporary practice,” that I was hoping would find its way to Mudlark?
By giving over the whole of every “issue” to one poet, and one poet only. That was my answer to my question: “Every issue a special issue.” Instead of any given poet’s work becoming a small part of a larger whole, however rich the mix with the work of other poets, the focus would be on one poet, and one poet only. Don’t diffuse the light; shine it all on him or her.
It was my hope that singular act—and fact—would attract work of a quality and range that Mudlark might otherwise not get. And I’d like to think I was right about that. The proof, though, is in the Mudlark archive, in the poems themselves. Why not read them and decide for yourself, keeping in mind that I make mistakes but own them, like all responsible editors, when I do.
As for “never in or out of an issue,” the accumulation of “new pieces all the time while keeping up older work,” that struck me too, from the outset, as a feature that might attract the kind of work I was hoping for: Mudlark as an evolving chronicle of poetry and poetics. One of the many advantages of the electronic over the print medium is that readers don’t have to go looking for “old” issues of favorite periodicals in the library stacks; instead they are always at hand, or, in any case, never more than a click away. And every time an old poem is discovered by a new reader it becomes a new poem again.
In an essay you wrote for The Free Cuisenart some years ago, you peeled back several layers to the word “mudlark.” One I loved was the mudlark as street urchin, a scavenger hunting through the rubble for something to sell. Being an editor probably feels like scavenging at times, though it’s hard to pinpoint what carries “street value” in poetry. What has that meant to you lately, either as an editor or a writer?
I love this question. Here’s the relevant paragraph from the “Mudlarking” section of my essay in The Free Cuisenart:
In London where I’ve lived and worked, the real mudlark, the historical one, was a child who lived in the gutter, as it were, and kept himself alive by working the mud-banks of Thames River, ‘Down Greenwich reach /Past the Isle of Dogs’ (The Waste Land) where England’s own and the world’s ships plied their trade. The mudlark’s job description, if he had one, would likely read: scavenger. His survival, outside the political and economic systems that governed the official life of his time, depended on whatever he could find—‘empty bottles, sandwich papers, / silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends’—that the river had left behind. Anything on which he could put a price, anything that had value on the street.
For me, Mudlark is both a noun and a verb: as a noun it refers to the scavenger and as a verb it describes what he does, his scavenging. I often refer to my editing of Mudlark as my mudlarking, which I take to be, metaphorically, a kind of scavenging. The job description I have written for myself, as editor, requires that I sort out the poems that turn up in my mailbox, reminding myself as I do that I am, at the same time, sorting out myself as a reader of poems. If Mudlark is going to be, and remain, open to “accomplished work that locates itself anywhere on the spectrum of contemporary practice,” as I have promised myself it will, then I will forever be learning how to read poetry. And the poems I read, including and especially those submitted to me for Mudlark, will be teaching me, informing the decisions I make for and against them, and in the process determining the content of Mudlark.
But what is it that carries “street value” in the poetry world? I’m still begging your question—am I not?—in part because the answer, I would suggest, is different for different readers. For me, the answer has everything to do with use value, a term that derives from Karl Marx and his critique of political economy. But what I have in mind here is another application of the term to what might be called a poetic economy. When I teach poetry workshops I am wont to ask my students, without any preparation or set-up for it: “If you give a poem a job to do, can it do it, will it do it?” My answer is: “Some can, some can’t. It all depends on the poem and the job.” Your answer might very well be different.
What I have in mind here is the kind of job or use for a poem that Wallace Stevens must have been thinking of when, in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” 1942, he supposed that we try “to construct the figure of a poet, a possible poet,” and then asked “what is his function” and answered: “I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people live their lives.” If that is too much to ask of poet and poem, so be it, but that won’t stop me, even for a second, from asking it.
Perhaps another, somewhat more pragmatic, answer to the question of “street value” in relationship to poetry is called for too, and so I offer you this indelible sentence from Harry Levin’s “Literature as an Institution,” 1946: “Literature is the cause of social effects as well as the effect of social causes.” Substitute, in Levin’s sentence, “poetry” for “literature” which it is when done surpassingly well, and we arrive at this conclusion: Poetry makes things happen, both in here and out there; it changes us and, through us, it changes the world we live in.
So far, I’ve made mention only of “issues,” e-chapbooks by another name, as structural elements of Mudlark. There are other elements too: “posters,” which I began publishing in 1997, and “flashes,” which I began publishing in 1998—shorter selections of poems than Mudlark “issues” and even, upon occasion, individual poems that stand alone.
Here are links to Rachel Kubie’s The Harvest from a Field on Fire Mudlark Flash No. 84 (2004) and Timothy Bradford’s “Oracular,” Mudlark Flash No. 37 (2006). I offer them as examples of poems that manifest, for me, the kinds of use value your question has prompted me to articulate.
Those of us who dabble in long poems can have a tough time finding homes for our work. Mudlark’s published many long poems—as well as sequences and series—over the years. What compels you about the long poem? What turns you off?
I have to say that I’m not particularly given to the long poem per se. Mudlarks range from five lines on the short end to ninety-nine “sonnets” on the long end. See if you can find them. You might just as well have asked me what compels me and what turns me off about the short poem.
The “issues,” or e-chapbooks, which are all I was doing when I started Mudlark, do feature some poems that are longer than others and longer than what has arguably become the default poem in American poetry, the poem of several lines—sometimes divided into stanzas, sometimes not—often ending even as it begins. More often than not, they, the “issues” at Mudlark, are collections of individual poems that could stand alone but do not; rather they are positioned (composed, arranged) by the poet in relationship to one another so as to work and play as part of a larger whole, maybe even as a sequence or a “long” serial poem. The differences between Mudlark “posters” and “flashes” are, admittedly, somewhat arbitrary, but they are often, not always, shorter versions of the same.
One of the things that has always appealed to me about the electronic medium for publishing poetry, spreading the word, is that there are no real space limitations—no printing bills, no page charges, no layout specs—as there customarily are in the print medium. Poems do not have to “fit” into any external schema; they are free of all that and can give full expression to their own internal necessities, the drive mechanisms of thought and feeling, and language itself, that make them what they are, as poems, and give them what power they have.
By way of illustration and comment, one of my own favorite experiences of rejection seems relevant here. An unnamed editor of a respectable, even prestigious, but unnamed print magazine proposed to eliminate from a poem of mine everything that made it, from my point of view, a poem. He was, he said, “getting rid of the clutter.” And if I let him do that, he would then accept it along with another poem of mine that he didn’t “edit”—or mess with, as I prefer it—at all. “By virtue,” his phrase not mine, of doing that, he could, he said, get both of my poems on the same page of his next issue, thus solving what he saw as a layout problem and, I presume, saving on page charges a bit of his institutional sponsor’s money. In the note I sent that editor, rejecting his rejection of my poem by withdrawing it along with my other poem, the one he had accepted as written, I offered him, by way of explanation, just this: “One man’s clutter is another man’s music.”
Allow me, if you will, a riff on the subject of attention. I think it can and will underline my openness at Mudlark to long poems: to “presenting and preserving” them in the vocabulary of Mudlark’s mission statement, to giving them a place of honor, their own public place. But the long poem makes demands on its readers who must come to it adequately, if not fully, equipped. They must bring their attention, or something that passes for it, with them to their reading. The survival of the long poem depends on our recovering and reclaiming the kind of sustained attention that must be paid by its reader to it. If “never in and never out of print” is one of Mudlark’s logos, then “fast load, slow read” is another. What I hope for is not just that Mudlark’s readers find their way to its pages, or rather screens, but that finding themselves there they stay awhile. Take your time, I am fond saying; take the poem’s time too—and the longer the poem, the longer the time it takes.
In his “Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allen Poe famously says: “What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects.” And he goes on to say that if “any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting” it is too long. That, for a century and a half, passed for wisdom; now we have Billy Collins telling Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” NPR, that he writes most of his poems in one sitting. Go figure.
Sue Burton’s Little Steel, Mudlark Issue No. 60 (2016) is one example of a long poem in Mudlark, and Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s The Limbo Suite, Mudlark Issue No. 39 (2009), is another.
You were publishing “issues” online years before the wave of e-chapbooks put out by indie presses and journals. Do you have any advice for writers submitting for an “issue,” such as a ballpark number of poems or pages to submit and whether to be looking for thematic or narrative connections between poems?
I do believe I’ve already addressed the question you’re asking here, indirectly, in my references to the openness I strive to maintain as a reader and the innocence I endeavor to bring to my reading at Mudlark, an openness and an innocence that, if I deliver on my promise to myself, carry with them the possibility of “surprise.” Like Miss Emily, I mean to “dwell in possibility.” So let me use my answer to your question as an occasion for giving poets who are considering Mudlark as a venue for their work some advice, or at least some “faint clews and indirections,” to borrow a phrase from Old Walt, as to how to think about their work in relationship to Mudlark, whether they have “issues” or posters or flashes in mind. And let me spin my answer in the direction of both history and taste.
Mudlark knows its own history, a history that goes back much farther than its founding in 1995, much farther than the development by Marc Andreessen of the first web browser, Mosaic, in 1994 and the invention of the World Wide Web itself by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. The history I’m referring to is the history of all the print magazines that published poetry in America in the 20th century and were edited by one woman or one man.
To make my point, I will limit myself to naming one such editor here: George Hitchcock. My aspirational sense of myself as an editor, working in the electronic medium, has everything to do with the likes of Hitchcock, who worked exclusively in the print medium, editing Kayak, his magazine of poetry and lithography, all by himself from 1964 to 1984. Hitchcock has given us what I still take to be the most accurate, and graphic, description of what a one-man or one-woman publishing project strips down to when the content is poetry. On the cover of each and every issue of Kayak this statement appeared: “A kayak is not a galleon, ark, coracle or speedboat. It is a small watertight vessel operated by a single oarsman. It is submersible, has sharply pointed ends, and is constructed from light poles and the skins of furry animals. It has never yet been employed as a means of mass transport.” Not a bad working definition, that, of a one-man or one-woman magazine.
Enough of history, what about taste? What advice do I have for poets who are considering Mudlark as a venue for their poems, long or short? I resist any tendency I might otherwise have to formulate the terms of either a public statement or private understanding of such a thing as an editorial “policy” at Mudlark, because I never want to find myself in the position of turning away from Mudlark poems that are at odds with my “policy” and prove themselves, at the same time, necessary to me. To do so would be to slam shut the door I opened wide twenty-one years ago at Mudlark. To do so would be to act, demonstrably, against what I take to be Mudlark’s best interest, poetry’s best interest, and my own best interest.
You ask about “thematic and narrative connections between poems,” what I might be looking for. When I have rejected, at Mudlark, work from poets suggesting, as I did so, that I didn’t want to lose them as readers of Mudlark and as possible future contributors to it, they have often responded by submitting their work again, along with notes in which they say one version or another of the same thing: “I’ve been reading what you’ve been publishing in Mudlark and I think I know what you want. I think you’ll really like these poems.” To which, my customary response has been: “You’re looking in the wrong direction. You won’t find what I want in future issues of Mudlark in previous issues of Mudlark.” I know that sounds more like a dodge or an evasion than it does a response, but it’s not; it’s really not.
Mudlark also publishes essays from time to time. As you’ve said elsewhere, these are essays that “make us read poems (and write them?) differently somehow.” Are you open to seeing essays that focus on issues of craft and particular poets, or are you interested in something closer to a personal lyric essay? Or neither?
Mudlark’s full name on its masthead is Mudlark: An Electronic Journal of Poetry and Poetics, but the “and Poetics” part of its name has not, unsurprisingly, attracted all that much attention from poets who do, and poets who don’t, submit their work to it.
As for what kinds of essays I had in mind when I rounded “poetry” off with “poetics” in my naming of Mudlark, all I can say, these many years later, is that in my own reading and writing life I have found poets’ prose enormously helpful to my understanding of and feeling for the poem as process and the poem as artifact, poetry as both craft and art. The Paris Review’s ongoing “Writers at Work” interview series is perhaps the great prototype in American letters for recording the poet’s prose “voice” in written rather than spoken form, and the University of Michigan Press’s “Poets on Poetry” book series performs much the same service—and it is a service—in a more extensive format.
One of the main things that attracts me to poets’ prose is the writing as writing, the embodied voice as it were; some poets really do “labor,” like Dylan Thomas, “by singing light,” whether the end product of their labor turns out to be poetry or prose. So, yes, the “personal” and the “lyrical” do matter to me when I’m reading essays that have been submitted to me for Mudlark and making my mind up about them.
David Alpaugh’s “In Praise of Writer's Block,” is one kind of Mudlark essay, a seriously playful commentary on what might be called “the poetry surplus” in American literary culture, its overproduction and oversupply. An exchange between Christopher Cokinos and Greg Wrenn that started with an essay by Wrenn in APR, “The 23rd-Century Nature Poem,” and continued in Mudlark with “One Whale Shark Eye” (Cokinos’ response) and “Haute Ecology” (Wrenn’s “final” response to Cokinos), is poets’ prose of another kind, having to do, in equal parts, with poetics and environmental politics.
So I would say, on the evidence—sorting through the Mudlark archive, looking at what is and what isn’t there—that Mudlark is open to as many different kinds of essays as it is kinds of poetry. The fact that a particular kind of essay is nowhere to be found in Mudlark might well be for no reason other than the fact that I haven’t read it yet because it hasn’t been submitted to me yet.
Back to the use value of poetry: I have a line in an essay of mine called “Eating Poetry,” published in the Chicago Review in what seems another lifetime now, that goes like this: “I read poetry as if my life depends on it, because it does.” What I think of as the readerly essay, rather than the writerly essay, would be of great and real interest to me at Mudlark, the essay that attempts to articulate the part poetry plays in its readers’ lives, the difference it makes, and does so by reading poems closely and deeply, powerfully and beautifully.
I don’t know whether there’s a place here, or not, for links to two of my own essays, but inasmuch as your question is about my editorial leanings at Mudlark, it makes a kind of sense—doesn’t it?—to link them as examples, not models, of what I mean by the readerly essay: “Figuring the Reader,” Del Sol Review and “‘Else Sinning Greatly’: Jack Gilbert, His Vocation,” The Key West Review.
Is there anything new on the horizon for Mudlark that you’d like to share with us?
Yes, there is. This sounds like an invitation to construct a Mudlark “To Do” list and share it. At least that’s how I hear it, so here goes:
My “to do” list begins with an expression of my desire to pay more of my editorial attention to the “Reruns” section of Mudlark so as to give readers—by linking them on Mudlark’s home page (its main screen)—to what might be called “a second first look” at poems that are “never in and never out of print” but find themselves buried deeper in the Mudlark archive every year. So many of the Mudlark authors whose work I have rerun have told me that they are enormously grateful for having that kind attention, “a second first look,” paid to their work that it seems only right for me to do more of it.
It took me a while to get around to Mudlark Recordings, but get around to them I did in 2004. The recordings that Mudlark has done, so far, have been particularly well received and I want to do more of them, many more of them. But I am not, here or anywhere else, inviting submissions of recordings. You won’t find such a call in Mudlark itself or, for that matter, in any of Mudlark’s market listings. The only recording that has ever been submitted to me as a recording came from France and took me by surprise, Lily Robert-Foley and Camille Bloomfield’s Lecteurs simultanés/Simultaneous readings. The shape their recording takes is the pure shape of the sound it makes since no written text accompanies it. All the other Mudlark recordings, or voiceprints as I like to call them, are a function of my having accepted poems for publication that I then found myself reading aloud, at which point I inquired of their authors whether they would be at all interested in recording their poem/s for Mudlark.
Other examples (than Lecteurs simultanés/Simultaneous readings) of Mudlark Recordings, to give you some sense of what they sound like so far, are Timothy Bradford’s “Oracular,” which I have already recommended to you in my discussion of use value, and Mark Dow’s Feedback and Other Conversation Poems
My “to do” list for Mudlark has a few other items on it, redesign being one. I have always done my own webwork, so even in that sense, its technical aspect, Mudlark is a one-man project. And it is, as I have had occasion to say many times over the years, “a museum of itself,” by which I mean that if you were to follow on through it chronologically, you would see what was and wasn’t possible technologically at different ages and stages of its production.
I have to own up, in recent years, to not having taken full advantage of what is possible technologically on the World Wide Web, in part because I don’t really want to: Mudlark has been generously praised for the simplicity, even the “elegance” (not my word), of its design, and I have often thought of doing a kind of retro redesign, making it look on the screen like the mimeographed and stapled poetry magazines—that were everywhere to be found in the 1960s—looked on the page, purple smudges and all. But in part, too, because at Mudlark “poetry is the thing,” as its mission statement proclaims, not how it looks, its design, which is the difference, for me, between a primary and a secondary virtue. Other than all that, I just haven’t taken the time.
There is, in my work room, a long shelf of poetry books, sent to me by their authors, with poems in them that originally appeared in Mudlark. Gerald Fleming’s One, from Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn, which arrived, as it happens, in this morning’s mail, is one such book. It has in it nineteen poems, including the title poem, that originally appeared as (This) One, Mudlark Issue No. 56 (2015). The books on the shelf in my work room are all the evidence I require that the electronic medium and the print medium, as they have to do with poetry, are different parts of the same whole. They both complement and supplement one another.
What “to do” with these books that only increase in number and are themselves both extensions and reflections of my Mudlark project? Catalog them and link the catalog to Mudlark’s homepage along with information about how to own them or gift them. That’s what to do with them.
My Mudlark “To Do” list is by no means exhaustive. For example, poetry in translation is missing from it, which is, all by itself, reason enough to draw up another Mudlark “To Do” list. In the meantime, though, you might have a look at James Reidel’s masterful translations into English of Chants, Poems from Franz Werfel’s Judgment Day, Mudlark Issue No. 57 (2015) and Some Uncommon Poems and Versions by George Trakl, Mudlark Issue No. 53 (2014), from their German language originals.
The only thing left for me to do here, the last item on my list, is thank Laura Moretz, the Interview Editor at The Review Review, for inviting me to participate in their interview series, and thank Annie Kim for interviewing me, for asking me such evocative questions.
Thank you, Laura. Thank you Annie.
Annie Kim’s first poetry collection, Into the Cyclorama, won the 2015 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Mudlark, Asian American Literary Review, DMQ Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers and the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Hambidge Center, Kim works at the University of Virginia School of Law as the Assistant Dean for Public Service. More about Kim’s work can be found at anniekim.net.