Part I: An Interview with Jill Bialosky
By The Editors on 4.13.09
W. W. Norton Vice President and Executive Editor Jill Bialosky is both a distinguished editor and widely admired poet. The Editors of Poems Out Loud felt that Bialosky’s two passions, editing and writing, merited a two-part interview. In this segment, Bialosky talks about her life as an editor. Next week, we’ll post Part II, our conversation with her about her latest volume of poems, Intruder.
Poems Out Loud: How did W. W. Norton end up among the leading publishers of American Poetry?
Bialosky: When I landed at Norton in 1983, there was a legendary college editor, John Benedict, who worked closely with the scholar M.H. Abrams to create the Norton Anthologies and Norton Critical Editions.He brought to the house remarkable poets, who have since become the backbone of the Norton list. Adrienne Rich, A. R. Ammons, Audre Lorde, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Linda Pastan, to name a few. I was very lucky to land at Norton, and the poetry list was one of the reasons I was drawn there. I had the good fortune of working at a house where editorial assistants were encouraged to find projects. I immediately signed on to be a reader of the poetry manuscripts that came across the transom. At around that time Carol Houck Smith (1923-2008), who was one of the editors I worked for, also became interested in poetry. I think Stephen Dunn was the first poet she brought to Norton. Then Gerry Stern, Stanley Kunitz, Maxine Kumin, and of course many others. The first two poets I brought to Norton were international poets: Eavan Boland and Nina Cassian. I saw poems of theirs published in magazines like The New Yorker and American Poetry Review and it was wonderful to be able to publish their selected work and see an audience grow in this country. Eventually I took on Joy Harjo, Marilyn Hacker, Ai, Charlie Smith, Marie Howe, and many others and of course the list continues to grow in surprising ways.
Photo by Marion Ettlinger
Poems Out Loud: Does the critical apparatus that’s required for you to be a good editor ever get in the way of your ability to access the creative space you need as a poet? Does the lifestyle that’s required to be an editor ever feel at odds with your identity as an artist?
Bialosky: I find the two vocations very different: that of being an editor and a poet. Being an editor and working on another writer’s text is to embody the sensibility of the writer. In other words, to be a sensitive editor one has to first access the author’s intentions—invade it might be too strong a word, but I like the idea of embodying that space—and then be able to carefully offer suggestions that might further enhance the work. The creative space I need as a poet is still mysterious to me. Not to be too mystical about it, but poems get made in ways I’m not fully aware of. It is often about decisions. Hitting on an idea or argument and then deciding what form the poem will take. I can move in and out of the creative space almost in the same way that we move in and out of sleep and wake time. When I was a graduate student I always worked a number of jobs to support myself, so it was not really unusual for me to have a full time job as an editor and also to feel fully engaged with my life as a writer off the clock. Of course, I sometimes don’t get as much down time as I’d like, or sleep!
Poems Out Loud: Tell me about how your career as an editor evolved. I believe you came to Norton after studying poetry and completing your Master’s degree at John Hopkins and then an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Bialosky: Yes. As I said, I was fortunate to land at Norton. When I was in college I had a work-study job at the Ohio Review and then later at Hopkins worked at the Johns Hopkins Press. I became infatuated with publishing at the time. There was something wonderful about opening submissions from writers, some of whom I was aware of and others whose work was completely new to me and suddenly this entirely new world might open in a short story or a poem. I knew when I graduated from Iowa that I wanted a literary life, though I wasn’t sure what it would entail and if it would be possible to be a poet and a writer, along with being an editor. I found comfort in a few models—T. S. Eliot for one, who as you know was a publisher, and also Wallace Stevens, who worked in the insurance business and managed to write some of the most exquisite and internal poems in the language. After taking on a few poetry projects at Norton, I began to acquire fiction and nonfiction and was eventually promoted to a full time editor. It is interesting to look back at that time, when I truly didn’t know whether it would work out or not, but was determined to make it so, now that I have published three books of poetry and two novels of my own, and edited so many wonderful books at Norton. It turns out, it is an interesting balance. After many years of being an editor I still get that rush when a finished book lands on my desk. It is rewarding to follow a manuscript from its earliest stages, sometimes just a proposal, and watch it transform into a finished book.
Poems Out Loud: How would you describe your tastes as an editor when you first came to Norton? How have your tastes evolved?
Bialosky: Taste is very hard to quantify, isn’t it? I suppose it is voice that initially engages me as a reader. Like any project considered for acquisitions it is the combination of freshness, energy, intelligence, and vision that distinguishes a potentially winning project. When I first began acquiring books of poetry our chairman at the time had a mandate. He wanted Norton to publish poets that would go on to win major awards. I took that mandate seriously. I continue to look for voices in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that are unique and offer a new perspective or way of seeing. Language and craft is also important but without voice and a strong vision, craft is merely dressing.
Poems Out Loud: And the critical criteria you use in selecting proposals you’ll bring into an editorial meeting?
Bialosky: As I mentioned, it is a combination of freshness, energy, intelligence, and vision that distinguishes a potentially winning project. I suppose finally I want to feel passionate about a project. It really is about falling in love.
To be continued next week in Part II…