M. E. Silverman is editor and founder of Blue Lyra Review and Review Editor of Museum of Americana. He is on the board of 32 Poems. His chapbook, The Breath before Birds Fly (ELJ Press, 2013), is available. His poems have appeared in more than 70 journals, including: Crab Orchard Review, 32 Poems, December, Chicago Quarterly Review, North Chicago Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Tapestry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Los Angeles Review, Mizmor L’David Anthology: The Shoah, Cloudbank, Neon, Many Mountains Moving, Pacific Review, Because I Said So Anthology, Sugar House Review, and other magazines. He recently completed editing a contemporary Jewish anthology with Deborah Ager from Bloomsbury and is working on a second one. Find more at mesilverman.com.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): First, a few questions about you and Blue Lyra Review. Is there any significance to the name?
Matthew Silverman (MS): One of the most difficult tasks that any journal has to perform when first establishing is coming up with a name that was not already taken and one that has a domain still available! I liked the idea of “blue” and it rhymed with “review” but it needed to be more than that. After brainstorming with some friends and colleagues, I finally stumbled onto an idea while watching my daughter (then age 5) play “Rocket Girl.” Her play acting reminded me of the story of Lyra. The Greeks believed after Orpheus died, Zeus sent an eagle to get his lyre, and then he placed both the bird and the lyre in the sky. Now it is one of the 88 constellations, and contains Vega, the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere. One can only hope to strive for so much, and I wish all of our acceptances soar so high!
TWM: What made you start up Blue Lyra?
MS: I am coming back to that very question right now as I write the introduction for our first print anthology! For me, there did not seem to be a literary outlet where a magazine included diverse voices without excluding others. While we wanted this to be part of our goal, we sought to publish quality above all else! In fact, our mission statement says just that: Our aim is to unite writers and artists from a diverse array of backgrounds, paying special homage to the voices of Jewish writers and those from other underrepresented communities.
Overall, we look for quality and do not exclude looking at work from any writer. But why a journal when there is a plethora of journals out there? I wanted to step behind the curtain so to speak. This was not exactly out of the blue. I was a reader for New Delta Review for three years, and I edited my graduate school magazine, The Arena. While that was over ten years ago, it felt right to step back into this role.
TWM: You state the aim of the journal is to unite writers and artists from a diverse array of backgrounds, paying special homage to the voices of Jewish writers and those from other underrepresented communities. A few questions about that: why does diversity matter to you? Why Jewish writers and why do you think we’re underrepresented?
MS: I didn’t really think about this so much until Deborah Ager and I put together a Jewish poetry book called Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. While there are a few journals and places to publish Jewish poetry exclusively, no journal was focusing on Jewish writing and other diverse groups but still being inclusive to all writers. As far as why diversity matters, I think it does. I think a lot of people agree. Why else do we keep track of the number of male-accepted pieces vs. female in certain magazines and all that other data that pops up on social media from time to time? It matters because there has been a history, not too long ago, of certain groups being excluded, and those groups have always been women and minorities. While it has greatly improved today, it is not something that no longer exists. So BLR looks for diverse writers but does not exclude. Why? Simple: we don’t want to flip the coin and say no white males or no anybody. Send us your best, send us something that resonates and we’ll publish it.
TWM: You also say you look for quality. How do you define that — or do you know it when you see it?
MS: Good question. But isn’t this toughest thing in the world to define? First, we have a staff of different people with different tastes and then we are supposed to mix that together like a batter and create a cookie cutter answer. So I say, look at any journal and they all state the same thing: we look for quality. But in a real sense, what is that? For us, this is something that catches our attention, makes us care, makes us swoon, makes us fall in love, and makes us want to reread whether it is by someone with a big name of fresh out of grad school. On the other end of the spectrum, does that mean the pieces we reject are bad? Of course not. It just means it was a good fit elsewhere.
TWM: Now, let’s turn to you as a poet. You’ve published in more than 70 journals. Which ones do you think are more open to Jewish voices?
MS: Well, obviously the journals that are open to Jewish writing are the ones that state this outright. We have a list on our site as a writing resource to help Jewish writers find Jewish journals. Check it out at http://bluelyrareview.com/writing-resources/jewish-focus/. But I think almost any journal nowadays is open to considering Jewish writing. I have Jewish-themed poems in Crab Orchard Review, December, Off The Coast, Gingko Tree Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Moulin Review and other places.
TWM: What poets inspire you? How?
MS: Wow, interesting question. There are so many! I have been reading a lot of Jewish contemporary poetry in preparation for the Bloomsbury Anthology. But the poets I return to most often are usually women poets for whatever reason and usually there is a focus on nature or someone who gives us little narrative delicious details like Jane Kenyon, Sharon Olds, Khanna, Nezhukumatathil and David Hernandez. But I also love Schultz, Levine, Hirsch, William Mathews, Jason Shinder, Sarah Hannah, Pastan, and Richard Hugo. R. S. Thomas may surprise some. If I had to walk up to one-non poetry reader and hand them a book, it would be R. S. Thomas and Mary Oliver. Yes, I know. I cheated: that is two!
TWM: How long have you been writing poetry and what’s the attraction?
MS: I started in 1991 in a class taught by Kate Daniels. I had to take it as a writing requirement and it changed my life. I like the challenge of showing something to someone in a limited space. I had dabbled in playwriting previously but could never get into the dynamics of fiction despite being an avid reader of it.
TWM: Are there any special challenges, do you think, for the Jewish poet? If so, please describe.
MS: Special challenges? This feels very loaded in today’s PC world. Ah, but I know what you mean! For me, personally my biggest challenge has been the vocabulary. I think this is true about other poets who write about the Jewish experience(s). In my new book, not yet published, I have gone to the trouble to add a glossary which I include with my manuscript submissions.
TWM: Please comment on your writing practice. How did the MFA at McNeese help?
MS: I think it helped and hurt. It is so hard to get the voices of your major professor and the “workshop” out of your head. In fact, I got so frustrated that I stopped writing for ten years. This gave me a chance to grow up, to read for pleasure, to live some experiences. When I came back to it and I didn’t think I would, it was out of the blue. I began to write for pleasure and not to publish or to move up the Ivory Tower ladder. How did it help? I went to one of the Top 20 MFA programs. I was introduced to writers like Robert Olen Butler and W.D. Snodgrass, writers I would never have picked up to read (I am ashamed to say) but now enjoy.
TWM: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
MS: Don’t go to graduate school straight out of college. Explore. Work a job. Live. Travel. Be stupid. Make mistakes. Read and read some more.