Why I Chose Amy Newman’s Dear Editor for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club

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Rumpus Poetry Editor Brian Spears on why he chose Amy Newman’s Dear Editor as the December selection of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club:

When I first opened Dear Editor, winner of Persea Books’ Lexi Rudnitsky prize, and saw the form Amy Newman had chosen for every poem in this book, I thought “there’s no way she’s going to pull this off for the whole book.” I am happy to say that I was wrong.

Newman’s poems are in the form of submission letters to an unnamed editor of a literary journal. Most of the poems begin the same way, with

Dear Editor:
Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript X = Pawn Capture

and then move on to the meat of each poem. The poems often end with the same sort of boilerplate language:

Thank you for your consideration, and for reading. I have enclosed an SASE, and look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Amy Newman

and I admit I was suspicious of them as a result. I expected winking poems, snarking at po-biz, at the chasing many (most?) poets do after publication, at the publish-or-perish nature of academia (for those of us fortunate (?) enough to be employed there). Again, I was wrong. These poems don’t do any of that. The form is a stutter-step, an ankle-breaking juke that leaves the reader spun and wondering where in the hell the poem went and how it got there.

Here’s what the poems seem to have in common: grandparents and chess, but not chess as played by the standard rules. Rather, chess is used to illustrate the speaker’s grandparents’ contentious relationship, and the game changes in every poem. In “17 October,” the speaker pictures “the chessboard as the field on which my grandparents first made love, and atop this, the series of black and white squares represent their commitments and arguments and unholy sacrifices for the children who will never live up to their hopes; the chess pieces are the grandchildren who further disappoint them.” In “21 March,” the poems being submitted for consideration are “a lyrical study of chess as my grandfather invented it; the first move has to be made when my grandmother lifted her knife to begin chopping vegetables for the evening meal.” In “30 March,” “the first move is not an advantage, but a disadvantage, so no one begins, which makes for a darkening of the afternoon as the light through trees withdraws and the grandfather’s cigar dominates, and the child believes.”

I have no idea how Newman pulls this off. Every time I started a new letter, I found myself enveloped in the world of the letter, which I quickly convinced myself was far more interesting than any of the poems from the manuscript (which we never see) could possibly be.

This is a book that requires multiple readings, I believe, and I’m looking forward to tracing some of the recurrent images as well as the overall movement of the book as it takes us through the seasons–the book’s three sections are titled “Fall,” “Winter,” and “Spring”–toward the final poem which closes, in an oddly appropriate way, “Forgive my trespasses.” I’m excited to be discussing this book and chatting with Amy Newman this month.

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Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →