If focus is the key to success, Barrow Street is throwing straight bullseyes. Forget author interviews, genre-jumping, and flashy art, and delve into the text, straight into the words on the page. The Winter 2014/15 issue has a simple no-nonsense design. Authors are listed alphabetically. Bios are found at the back in fine print jammed together to save precious real estate. No editor’s letter. No ads. Just a tight masthead and a New York address and 96 outstanding poems, running the gamut from short and sweet to epic and tragic. Sixty-two poets are published, ranging from first-timers to big names from big institutions with supporting bibliography. Whatever process the Barrow Street editors and readers are using to sift through their slush, which I imagine to be a mountainous snow bank, doesn’t change a thing: because it is working. Since 2000, they have had 18 poems selected to be anthologized in Best American Poetry.
In this issue most of the poems are a page, a few are two, but not longer. Most poets have a single poem or two included, not three. Except for the special sections featuring Meg Day, Molly Peacock, and Terri Witer. Meg Day writes in a crisp and vivid style. It is easy to see why her poems were selected as the 2013 The Barrow Street Book Prize winner, judged by Afaa Michael Weaver. In the poem “On Nights When I Am Amelia Earhart,” she takes the reader on a dreamy flight through “sea and spit” concluding with:
It’s then that I can see the lighthouse keep—
his hands pressed to the glass & cry for him
until night comes & I’m sailing once again.
Mulling and twisting the mundane into the epic, the memorable, Day transforms daily moments: a first snow, a jog, a meeting in the park, the biting of nails.
Molly Peacock, a Canadian icon, has the only prose in the issue. “The Negativo Trio” begins “No was a violin, Not a viola, and Never a cello. They were noble instruments, but highly non-conformist. Prickly in personality, if sexy. Wayward. Always went in their own direction. Made odd choices. Loved the difficult. Naysaid the popular. Collectively unified in a single reaction to the mainstream: negative.” Hooked from the first phrase, the reader cannot, like a well-told joke, stop listening to this negative trio. It becomes clear why Peacock is almost a household name and included in this issue.
Terri Witek’s “Lies Down With,” a ten part poem in spacious couples, is a magical mediation:
A man lies with a purple flower.
No one plans such passions.
Because the bloom needs so much water
he sleeps with its stem in his mouth.
On the other end of the poetry-publishing spectrum, first-timer, Canon J. Parker’s “Here he Is!” brings a fresh breeze to the issue, with some fantastic lines, like: “who was declared a mole on the creamy ass of capitalism,” and “who wrote books of truth with all the pages blank / and filled the sky with infinite streams of Technicolor gibberish.” Parker’s poem catches the frantic energy of evangelism while anchoring the reader in digital culture.
Barrow Street is a non-profit literary arts organization that publishes up to four volumes per year, and this issue feels like an amulet for all their good publishing to come. I imagine the selection process is gruelling, but accessible to all, so if you are a budding poet or an experienced and decorated wordsmith, then Barrow Street just might be a welcoming address for your next epistle.
Focusing on the text, the poem—not the poet—as rare as it seems since the advent of the internet, is what keeps Barrow Street throwing bullseyes. Let’s pray they never stop.