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What We Look for in Poems: Sizzle & Steak

Dana Johnson, the Final Judge for our 2012 Fiction Contest  (which closes on October 31st, fictioners!), told us in an interview that she has no patience for “stories that are clever but have no heart.” She went on to explain that, though linguistic fireworks are important to a piece, what’s most important (to her) is whether or not the piece is trying to initiate a larger conversation with the reader and the world. In poetry, I think about this as a distinction between sizzle and steak.

You know how, when you go to Applebee’s, somebody always orders that dish that comes out sizzling and smoking, and it smells great (by Applebee’s standards), and everyone thinks, man, I should’ve ordered that? I’ve always been intrigued by that dish, but I suspect that the steak leaves much to be desired. In the same way, while I love sizzle in poems—dynamic use of language, surprising lines, dope images, lovely music—I’m also concerned about the steak. The ideal poem has both, I think—sizzle and steak, dazzle and stakes—and that’s one of the main things I look for when reading for Indiana Review.

(Read more after the jump!)

To elaborate, I want to touch briefly on two recent books: Quan Barry’s Water Puppets (Pitt Poetry Series, 2011) and S.E. Smith’s I Live in a Hut (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012). Both books are magnificent achievements, and deserve your reading and money and attention, but I think the distinction between the two will help illuminate one of my concerns as a poetry editor.

Barry’s Water Puppets explores, through various formal experiments and conceits, our relationship with history, war, violence, displacement. “If I had to watch someone be torn apart by motorbikes,” she writes in “Thanksgiving,” a poem that sweeps through various examples of injury and survival and violence, “I would still be me, which is the horror of it all.” This is representative of one of the book’s main projects: it’s a book about big issues, big questions—steak, stakes—but it sacrifices neither style nor personal resonance in its discussion of these issues. The book is filled with great lines and wonderful images, but it is also unafraid to tackle questions of great human significance, to converse with larger socio-cultural issues. The result is a book of enormous weight, a book that can wow, stun, and provoke real soul-searching in the reader.

Smith’s I Live in a Hut is perhaps even more dynamic in its approach to style. The poems often purport to be fables, but they (wisely) resist being boiled down to a moral or message. There are no empty symbols here, but rich quasi-narratives populated by surprising and dynamic voices. And the images, the associations! In “Paperweight Gold Tooth,” a poem in which the speaker becomes “a doomed gang / of nurses” in the afterlife, Smith writes: “Every night at the used car lot we, / meaning I in the afterlife, threw our signs / of amputated gold leg, braggadocio fever, / and hookworm to the sky. There were other / gangs.” The book is gorgeous, dope. And yet, at times, the poems feel slightly escapist to me—their main referent sometimes seems to be themselves and their own worlds rather than our own. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course—it’s just that I feel a slight imbalance between sizzle and steak in these poems, and I have trouble entering into them as conversations.

I don’t mean to suggest that a poem must be political, must tackle the big questions, in order to have stakes. But the poems that I most enjoy coming across in the IR slush pile are the ones that work to resonate both stylistically and emotionally, poems that seek to enter into and engage with some cultural conversation or discourse. Sizzle and steak. Please do dazzle me with your poems, but remember that I’m a poor graduate student, and I want a full belly by the end of our date.