Robert Nazarene, Editor of MARGIE: The American Journal of Poetry
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Robert Nazarene, founder and editor-in-chief of MARGIE: The American Journal of Poetry. Educated at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, Nazarene wrote his first poem at age 48. His first full-length collection of poems, CHURCH, is coming this fall from IntuiT House Poetry Series. His work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Boulevard, Crazyhorse, The Journal of the American Medical Association, North American Review, Ploughshares, Quarterly West and elsewhere. Read his poetry online at MARGIE, Cortland Review and Ploughshares.
Published annually in the fall, MARGIE is a well-respected literary journal that sponsors several contests per year for individual poems and poetry manuscripts. They are currently accepting poems for the Strong Medicine Poetry Contest (deadline October 31). Other prizes include the Robert E. Lee & Ruth I. Wilson Poetry Book Award (January 15), the Marjorie J. Wilson Award for Excellence in Poetry (April 15), and the MARGIE/IntuiT House Poetry Series First Book Contest (August 15).
Q: Tell me about the history of MARGIE and its namesake, the late Marjorie J. Wilson (1955-1977). Who was she, and how does the journal carry on her legacy?
A: Margie is the namesake of our late sister, killed in 1977 by a drunk driver. It was established as a living memorial to a young woman of great character, intellect and warm-heartedness.
First and foremost, I am a reader of poetry. I write only when I need to. I found in my reading of literary reviews that poets were often assigned the “back seat” in the journal—with fiction writers driving. Many respected reviews may only print 12-15 poems per issue and charge up to $15 for the issue. If I found one or two poems I thought were truly interesting, stimulating—I felt lucky. Correction: not so lucky.
I related my experience to an eminent poet I met at a reading. He refused to disagree with me. Then, he asked: “Why don't you do something about that?” The gauntlet.
I had the idea to start MARGIE one morning while driving across a bridge spanning the Missouri River. I envisioned a 48-page saddle-stapled review. If you want to hear God laugh—tell him your plans.
MARGIE appears annually, generally at over 400 pages with the work of over 175 poets and 200+ poems. Before MARGIE—I could no longer remember the sound of her (Margie's) human voice. Now, I do—thanks entirely to our supporters and contributors.
Q: Your website design incorporates Native American and Wild West imagery, in sometimes playful, sometimes satirical ways. What is the significance of those themes, and how are they reflected (if at all) in the content and mission of the journal?
A: Our family's origins spring from the Cherokee Trail of Tears, hard-by the tangled spine of the Ozark Mountains. The significance of our website graphics is more correctly related to our hallmark, Strong Medicine.
As an important aside to our “mission”—MARGIE is writer-friendly and respectful. During our open reading period, and year-round submissions from subscribers, with few exceptions, each poet will receive an answer back within 7-10 calendar days. There are no slush piles here.
Q: What does MARGIE's motto Strong Medicine mean to you?
A: Everything. Poetry which is fearless and uncensored. Poetry which is deeply disturbing or consoling—or at best, both. Poetry which pulls no punches, is unafraid of what others may think. And without bias toward any school, form, subject matter or lack thereof. We prize the distinctive voice. We eschew the homogeneous sound of so much of what passes for contemporary poetry.
Q: Many of the poems I've read in MARGIE have a political edge, often enhanced by subversive humor or absurdity. Do you see a mission for MARGIE in terms of analyzing or helping change contemporary American culture? What issues are of particular concern to the editors?
A: The American culture may now be beyond help—certainly from us. The core issue of particular concern to the editors of MARGIE is the destruction, the total annihilation of hypocrisy. As regards American culture—the situation is antediluvian.
As to issues of concern to the review, a partial list may be found at our website by clicking on the LINKS icon.
Q: Can you think of instances where contemporary poets, as poets, helped bring about positive political or social change? Conversely, how have poets tried to bring about reform in ways that you consider less useful?
A: No, on the question of positive political change. Policy-making in America is corrupt, near-thoroughly—perhaps, beyond redemption. It is with the deepest regret and sorrow, truly, I have stumbled my way to this conclusion. See Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
On the question of positive social change—I am encouraged by the relative empowerment of women, minorities and the physically and emotionally disadvantaged. We have come a mile. A long mile. We have thousands of miles yet to travel. Really? Yes.
As to a list of poets who have tried, mightily: e.e. cummings, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Dara Wier, Nicanor Parra, Paul Potts, and yes: Vladimir Nabokov.
Q: What concerns preoccupy you (thematic and stylistic) in your own work as a poet?
A: None. When I write I am not preoccupied with where I'm headed, where the poem is going. I prefer for God to lead and use me as his instrument. I am interested in what I name the architecture of the poem. How the white space is equally integral to the poem as the space devoted to black ink. The poem as painting.
Q: Is there a type of poetry that, despite being well-crafted, would be at a disadvantage in your contests because it doesn't fit the MARGIE aesthetic? What sort of poetry would that be? (E.g. formal versus free-verse, wrong topic, accessible versus experimental style.)
A: Definitely. That type of poetry would be boring poetry. We have no bias in either direction for formal poetry, free verse, blank verse, (there are no wrong topics), accessible or experimental work. We are biased against boring poetry—which is, often as not, terribly well-crafted. And I do mean terribly.
Q: Tell me about the judging process for your contests. If you use screeners, how are they chosen and what are their credentials? What guidelines are they given for selecting manuscripts?
A: We do not use screeners. Not in our contests. Not in our open reading period. We read entries blind. Each and every poem: I read. Many are read, as well, by our Senior Editor James Wilson. I don't want to miss out on a single poem which might be perfect for MARGIE.
My own tastes vary wildly—far more than any committee, if I do say so myself—which I've just done. Everyone's work is given careful, very careful consideration.
Likewise, we select contest judges of every ilk. We do so to ensure that contest entrants, writing poetry in all ways, have a shot at the brass ring. To some the brass ring may be the substantial prize money. To others the brass ring is publication in MARGIE. I would guess, roughly, 60% of our contributors arrived into Our Tribe via the contest entry route.
We are privileged to have played a very small part in the support of Feed The Children®, our contest beneficiary.
Q: How many entries do you typically get for your individual-poems and poetry manuscript contests? How many are forwarded to the final judge?
A: For our Best Poem contests we generally receive between one and two thousand contest entries. Ten finalist poems are forwarded to the contest judge. The judge reads these blind of any biographical information. The finalist poems tend to vary widely in style, form, school, outlook, content, etc. Poetry of all kinds have been chosen as winners. Except: boring.
For our book manuscript contests, we typically receive several hundred entries with ten finalists, give or take, forwarded to the contest judge. Also read blind.
Q: What are the most common problems that separate the winning entries from the near-misses? Do you have any suggestions to help poets perceive those deficiencies in their own work before sending it out?
A: The quality of poetry entered into our contests is consistently outstanding by our criteria: disturbing, thought-provoking, poetry which does not end in a neatly-tied ribbon and bow. I think poets perceive, correctly, they must send their very best work to win the prize or get published.
As to the second part of your question, I would refer your readers again to our website. Upon arrival, click on the CHAUTAUQUAS icon. We hope you'll find these essays interesting and informative.
Further, I think it essential in one's literary life (95% reading/5% writing) to read poetic essays. Personally, I’ve found great help reading the University of Michigan’s Poets on Poetry series. Read people like Wesley McNair, Charles Simic, Laurence Lieberman, James Dickey—but dammit—read, read, read. Then, write.
Q: Name a few contemporary poets who you think should be more widely read. What can aspiring authors learn from them?
A: Even poets who feel they are working “outside the box” are still working inside the box in which the original box came wrapped.
Some who are not: Dara Wier, Bruce Smith, Stephen Dunn, Troy Jollimore, Joy Harjo, Floyd Skloot, John Ashbery, Jane Mead, Ross Gay, Ai, F.D. Reeve, Ted Kooser, and Robert Nazarene (if you want to hear God laugh…tell him your plans.)
From poets such as these—with the strong likelihood of one glaring excepetion—one will learn: creative writing.
Q: Any other comments or advice for contestants?
A: Be audacious, trust, pray, have faith, never give up. Thank God for Everything.