Maya C. Popa is the author of American Faith (Sarabande), 2020 recipient of the North American Book Prize from the Poetry Society of Virginia. She is the Poetry Reviews Editor of Publishers Weekly and a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she is writing on the role of wonder in poetry.
Kristina Marie Darling: Your new book, American Faith, came out in late fall from Sarabande Books. What are three things that you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?
Maya Popa: I suppose it might help to know that there are moments of sly humor throughout the collection. It matters to me that readers still feel permitted to laugh despite the seriousness of the ostensible subject, so I occasionally mention that upfront at readings. Beauty and humor live alongside deep apprehension, of which there is plenty here.
The other thing that becomes evident as one reads is that I’m the daughter of Romanian refugees, and that, historically, not everyone in my extended family has shared the same political beliefs for complex reasons.
The last thing, and one of which I was unaware until it was brought to my attention by a perceptive college student on a class visit, is just how many of the poems deal with what is now known as “toxic masculinity.” I did not recognize that through line as I was writing, or even arranging the poems in the book. I was grateful that this student made me consider that arc more deeply than I previously had.
KMD: American Faith depicts our current political moment with subtlety and grace. What advice do you have for writers who struggle to write poems that are nuanced in their consideration of political questions?
MP: I think we’re in a highly productive and generative period of poetic engagement in this regard, with many very fine poets answering back to political discourse and rhetoric that by turns eschews responsibility, instigates violence, and upholds inequity. Poems can offer a deeper vision of political engagement and inquiry through language than what is practiced by the media. They can, as poets well know, capture and speak to the moment without reducing its complexity. It can feel daunting to engage with a topic that’s in the zeitgeist in a new and meaningful way. I think, however, that that anxiety is present to varying degrees with more traditionally “literary” topics too, and that none of that should stop us from engaging responsibly and thoughtfully with the plights of the moment. My only advice would be to focus less on relaying a fixed idea of what you know or think to be true, and to proceed with the earnest hope of being surprised.
KMD: In addition to your achievements as an author, you are the poetry editor at Publishers Weekly. What has surprised you most as you’ve curated book reviews and selected titles for coverage?
MP: I’m less surprised, perhaps, than delighted by the number of ways a book can be shaped, another way of saying that I’m always impressed by the sheer diversity of approaches in style, voice, and form in contemporary poetry. I’m similarly always pleased when a debut I read months ahead of its publication finds devoted readers.
KMD: Your curatorial work at Publishers Weekly has been a joy to witness, particularly as you’ve championed emerging writers, first books, and writers from historically marginalized populations. With that in mind, what responsibility does a gatekeeper have to his or her artistic community?
MP: That’s lovely to hear. So many, if not the majority, of excellent works fall under those categories—debut and emerging writers, and voices from historically marginalized groups—that one would have to actively work not to recognize the contributions these poets make to contemporary poetry. What is essential in either role as a reviewer or an editor is reading outside your own personal tastes and devoting the proper time and mind to understanding what a book is trying to accomplish. Ultimately, these roles are about connecting the tremendous contributions made by writers to a greater audience. And I feel very fortunate to be able to facilitate that to the extent that I may.
KMD: Relatedly, what has your work as an editor opened up within your creative practice?
MP: Certainly, reading more widely than I ever have has been inspiring, as has thinking about how different books are shaped. Relatedly, I have always loved editing, and I work with an excellent team of freelance reviewers. It’s a delight to read and engage with their thoughts on books, and to fine-tune what is always already excellent work.
KMD: What’s next? What can readers look forward to?
MP: I don’t know if readers will look forward to this exactly, but I’m working on my second book of poems, alongside my PhD thesis on the role of wonder in poetry.