A Q&A with Paisley Rekdal, HCN’s new poetry editor

‘Poetry offers a different way of seeing the world.’


Paisley Rekdal has joined High Country News as the publication’s poetry editor — the first person to hold that role in a very long time. She is the author of 10 books, including poetry collections Animal Eye, Imaginary Vessels and Nightingale, as well as nonfiction, including a collection of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, and most recently, Appropriate: A Provocation, which examines the debate around cultural appropriation and the literary imagination. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and on National Public Radio, and she has received numerous awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship and Pushcart Prizes. She’s also the creator and managing editor for Mapping Literary Utah, a web archive of Utah writers, and Mapping Salt Lake City, which maps communities and neighborhoods of Salt Lake City through critical and creative literature, interactive maps, and multimedia projects. In 2017, Rekdal was named Utah's poet laureate. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Your writing and poetry have garnered all sorts of awards and recognition. You’ve also served as an editor for poetry journals before. This, however, is a brand-new role at a publication that has yet to stake out a reputation for poetry. How are you feeling about that?

Paisley Rekdal: I’m excited. At magazines where readers are already expecting poetry, you’re already speaking to the converted. I like the idea of doing something kinda sneaky around poetry. Readers coming to High Country News for something different might find a poem that leads them to become more interested in poetry or seek out more poets living in or writing about the West. 

I’ve lived in the West for a long time — Wyoming, Utah, and I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest — and I grew up with a chip on my shoulder around how the West is often overlooked or misunderstood. People assume that we have no culture or avant garde. That’s something I feel like I can address. And doing that from a place that is more regionally placed is exciting. 

HCN: High Country News is known for long-form nonfiction. Have you been a reader, and how do you see poetry complementing HCN’s strengths? 

PR: I am a reader. I’ve come to HCN for a number of very well written long-form takes on surprising aspects of the West. What poetry can do is leap out of longer documents and accounts to offer new ways of seeing a subject. Poems become visual counterpoints on the page. They offer breathing space for readers moving their way through the publication online or in hand. But also, poetry offers a different way of seeing the world and oftentimes can compress really big stories into small images that do a lot of work. I think that if you’re a reader of long-form nonfiction, you’re always hungry for those bigger stories that poetry can actually offer in small, short ways.

HCN: You were asked to write a poem to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion. In “West: A Translation,” you did that through a Chinese elegy carved into a wall at Angel Island Immigration Station, where Chinese migrants to the U.S. were detained under the Chinese Exclusion Act. Do you see that work — taking something widely viewed as a symbol of Western achievement and weaving in the stories that were left out — as dovetailing with where HCN is trying to be in interrogating the myths of the West? 

PR: Yes. That’s the most interesting part of the role for me. As someone who’s long been a resident of the West and seen firsthand how these mythologies can be toxic to the communities that accept them and the national imagination of the West, I think it’s important to constantly reframe who is and what is the West. In the Transcontinental Railroad project, what I wanted to do was link two historical events in time: the Transcontinental Railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act, because one happens just after the other’s completion. There’s a way we imagine the West as settled and maintained by white men, but the reality is the West is a rapidly growing region filled with young people of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The West has been racially diverse since its beginning, whenever you want to chart that beginning to be. One could make the argument that the West was settled by the Chinese more than it was settled by white people if you want to think about the impact of the Transcontinental Railroad. And that’s a positive and negative legacy, too. 

The West is just a much more complex and rich and fascinating place than I think it’s historically been perceived by some. I think anyone who’s been reading High Country News knows that. That’s why I’m excited to get poetry in HCN, because I can speak to that conversation. Readers will be receptive to thinking about different kinds of authors and subject matter because they’re already coming for that. I know I’m not going to be asked to choose poems that tell the same story about the West that we’ve already heard. As Utah’s poet laureate, I get asked to speak in national forums because the people who invite me have an idea of what that sort of voice is going to sound like. It’s always been important to me to not be that voice.

HCN: You’ve said that your own work, such as in Animal Eye and Imaginary Vessels, deals with climate change in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes not. With climate reporting being such a big topic area for HCN, how can poetry speak to climate justice and climate change right now?

PR: Poets are asking themselves this question constantly. It’s an evolving conversation. The answer is: We don’t quite know yet what poetry can do. We know what poetry does on the page: It offers the possibility of multiple voices being imagined and heard and put in conversation with one another. It allows for movement across time. The metaphor in poems can link the thing being perceived at the moment to larger events in the past. So, one of the things poetry can do around climate change is talk simultaneously about what is happening now and what the future might be, so we see ourselves in a conversation about how we got here and how we might get out.

“I like the idea of doing something kinda sneaky around poetry.”

HCN: HCN’s readership is idiosyncratic. There may be a lot of differing views out there in what we tend to think of as one big audience. For climate change, that may be terror, defeatism or apprehension along with or as opposed to denial. 

PR: Almost all poems end up speaking to a variety of audiences — if they’re good poems. Those I find that have the most powerful relationship to the natural world are the ones that are infused with awe and a little dismay or terror — a feeling of protection and nurturing, as well as maybe anger or rage. We don’t have just one relationship to landscapes. Poems, through symbol and metaphor, allow for an ambiguity of meaning. You can have multiple or even contradictory feelings that exist in the same space. That allows for people to read the same poem as an ode to a place they love and an elegy to that same place. Poetry that really thinks about place works in both those modes.

HCN: Relationships to place, landscapes and the natural world are certainly a theme of your own work. Do you think you’ll mine that overlap with HCN when selecting poetry for the magazine? Or are you also looking for ways to surprise and challenge readers? 

We don’t tend to think of the West as a place that hosts a kind of experimental poetics, but we do.

PR: I’d like to publish the best poems that I find written in and about the West. I’m not going to be particularly focused on just one topic. That said, I think I am going to find more delight in poems that subvert whatever the topic might be. Oftentimes, we don’t talk about the urban West as a natural space. I’d be interested in seeing that. We don’t tend to think of the West as a place that hosts a kind of experimental poetics, but we do. I’d be interested in seeing some poems that resist conventional lyric expression in favor of something more surprising or visually disrupting on the page. I don’t want to limit what I’m looking for. 

I think the question is implicitly asking: Who is the final audience of these poems? Is it someone outside this world or is it someone who has already subscribed to this world? I think it’s a bit of both. I want to speak to as many people as possible.

Michael Schrantz is the marketing communications manager for High Country News based in Santa Fe. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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