More Broad, More Wild: An Interview with Christopher Nelson — conducted by Zach Savich

Christopher Nelson is the author of Blood Aria (University of Wisconsin Press, 2021) and three chapbooks, including Blue House, recipient of a New American Poets Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. He is the editor of Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora (Green Linden Press, 2021), recipient of a Midwest Book Award. He is the founder and editor of the journal Under a Warm Green Linden and Green Linden Press, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to poetic excellence and reforestation. We corresponded recently about his work as an editor, publisher, and writer.

ZS: Green Linden Press recently released Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora, which you edited.How did this book come about?

CN: Thank you for asking. The anthology came about when several interests, concerns, and circumstances dovetailed. Being monolingual, I have always cherished good poetry translations. Sometimes I will set three, four, five translations side by side with the original—and a dictionary of that poem’s language—and marvel and puzzle. I always fantasized about making an anthology of the very best translations of the very best poems of the world—a nearly impossible task, but it compels me to read widely. I was looking for translations of the great 20th-century Iranian modernist Nima Yushij, and I was baffled by how little I could find. He’s one the most important poets in Persian literature, and we have very little in English. This was 2020, during the double nightmare of the Trump administration and the Covid pandemic. I had lost my teaching job. I was at home. My government was antagonizing and demonizing Iran again. These several realities made me think: Now’s the time to do an anthology, and you should focus on Iran. The intention of the Essential Voices series is to make a bridge for English readers to cultures misunderstood or misrepresented, to reveal our shared humanity through poetry, to make less insular the various poetries of the world. I’m happy to say that Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora has been pretty well received. Entropy Magazine listed it as one of the best poetry books of 2020–21, and it received a Midwest Book Award for best poetry anthology. Now, with the freedom protests in Iran and the regime’s predictably terrifying response, I think it is an even more necessary book. The brilliant introduction by Kaveh Bassiri, nearly forty pages long, is a literary and sociopolitical history of the past 100 years in Iran. The poems from 130 poets and translators convey the beautiful ethos of the people and struggle and horror of living under a totalitarian theocracy.

ZS: In the editor’s note, you write that, “It is with some hesitation that I use the word ‘essential,’ for it might suggest that only the very best poets are gathered here.” You write, “I am more interested in ‘essence,’ from the Latin word essentia, which means ‘being.’” This brings to mind a difficult aspect of both translation and anthologies: one might be wary of “essentializing” others’ work, which can lead to troubling representations, and also of focusing on “universal” essences that may under-represent culture, history, identity. How did you negotiate questions like these while working on the anthology? Kaveh Bassiri’s introduction offers tremendous context, but the selection of poets and poems also seems key.

CN: Of course it is always difficult to effectively represent a group, school, demographic, culture, etc. One could go mad trying to make an anthology perfect. As someone with perfectionist tendencies, it was not easy for me to accept that I was up against a challenge for which there is no single best solution or representation. For example, I wanted to solicit more new translations, but that costs money and takes a long time. We were able to do a little of that, but most of the work in the anthology had already been translated, though not necessarily published. Early on in the project I had to determine the parameters; a book can only be so long. I thought that fifty poets seemed a good target; we ended up with seventy-seven. My early plan was to publish only living poets, but how can you anthologize Iranian poetry and not include Shamlu, Sepehri, Nima, Farrokhzad, et al? So we broadened it: living poets, poets who died in 2000 or later, and a few 20th-century titans that it would be sacrilegious to ignore. And I should say that the final decisions were mine; any omission or surprising inclusion are my responsibility. I should also say that I couldn’t have done this project without help; several people and institutions lent their attention and expertise at various times along the way, and for that I’m grateful. They’re listed in my editor’s note at the beginning of the book. And should we be fortunate enough to print a second edition—there seems to be sufficient interest—I have a short list of poets I would like to add, some of whom, to my knowledge, aren’t yet translated into English.

I came to the project as an outsider of Iranian culture, and while I learned a tremendous amount while making this book, I remain an outsider. For the most part, being an outsider makes a project like this more difficult, but it does afford an advantage: my decisions were more likely to be free from the cultural agreements about who should and shouldn’t be anthologized based on reputation, social standing, critical reception, etc.; I was able to focus almost exclusively on the quality of the poems or, in many cases, the quality of the translations. And it should be said that occasionally an important poet was left out of the book because the translations weren’t up to my standards, or no English translations exist. I hope to remedy that in a second edition. And a time or two, a significant poet declined the invitation to have work included. All of this being said, I’m very happy with the anthology; in less than two years—during a pandemic—we were able to bring together 130 poets and translators from ten countries and to come away with a strong representation of contemporary Iranian and Iranian diaspora poetry that, in concert with Kaveh’s introduction, does present, in the words of Tara Bahrampour, “an Iran beyond the news reports,” and I think readers will see what Phil Metres refers to in his commentary on the book: the “poets ... sure-footed and graceful, imagining another way, another vision of being,” one at least partially liberated from the animosities of the past and present.

ZS: The journal Under a Warm Green Linden started in 2008. In 2015, you began publishing books, chapbooks, broadsides. How has this expansion different from what you expected?

CN: That’s right—for the first few years, Under a Warm Green Linden was exclusively a place to read interviews with poets. I love the interview as a genre, and I’m happy to say that despite the various directions we’ve expanded, interviews are still part of what we do. But because we’re not affiliated with an institution, and we don’t have robust or consistent external funding, our growth has been gradual, steady but gradual. I like to add one component at a time, and when the new component is comfortably integrated into our daily workings, then I begin thinking about what we might add next. Interviews, then interviews and reviews, then a biannual poetry journal with broadsides, then a chapbook series, then a book prize for best innovative manuscript, then an anthology series. This year—be excited about this!—we launched the Stephen Mitchell Prize for poetry in translation. This is kind of a long way to answer your question—but given that our growth has been so measured, so planned, there haven’t been many surprises. That being acknowledged, I would say that I’m delighted to see how much interest there is in chapbooks, and I’m surprised in the other direction by how little interest there is in broadsides. You hear about how frequently journals and presses fold, so I feared that somehow it would all fall apart, that I couldn’t sustain it, financially or temporally, but (knock on wood) we’re doing well.

[New paragraph] I didn’t expect just how many obstacles there would be for a small, independent press to get off the ground, so to speak. At each juncture there are barriers that make it difficult; there are even barriers put in place by the institutions created to support small presses; for example, the National Endowment for the Arts—a press can only receive a grant if they can demonstrate that they’ve had X-amount of funding for X-number of years. I’m grateful that Green Linden Press received a fellowship that allowed us to have our titles carried by Small Press Distribution, but “simply” being a press that publishes high-quality books won’t qualify you for representation by a distributor; you need to have done it for X-number of years and have X-number of titles. Of course, that’s a catch-22: How can you successfully sell books for years without a distributor? We have navigated those challenges, but I didn’t anticipate all of them, and they were disheartening when first encountered.

ZS: The work you publish shows a distinct editorial vision, but it’s not uniform or narrow. To you, what are some qualities that might be shared by Green Linden poems? I’m thinking about how, whatever their style or subject, the poems across a given issue seem to invite a particular experience of reading—I feel acutely tuned by them.

CN: Thank you for saying so. And yes, I agree, by design it isn’t uniform. I love all kinds of poetry, from traditional lyrics on themes of love and death, to formally experimental work that flirts with illegibility or embraces difficulty. A good example of this is two books we published at the same time in fall of 2021: Richard Jones’ The Minor Key, the poems of which are beautifully lucid and accessible, and Dennis Hinrichsen’s schema geometrica, which has illustrations, an accompanying album of “soundscapes,” see-through pages, and daring syntax throughout. But I also don’t want to say that our intention is aesthetic eclecticism. In curating the issues of Under a Warm Green Linden and the titles in Green Linden Press’s catalog, I’m after something ineffable, some quality that transcends style—the electricity of being alive, the juice, the onrush of being taken in. Thankfully, poems like that can take any shape and be about anything.

ZS: I’m glad you mentioned Jones. His work has appeared in nearly every issue of the journal, and you’ve published two of his books. Could you tell me about your history with his poetry? I’m curious, too, about how you think of the editorial balance between continuity—new poems by Jones nearly every time—and variety.

CN: Richard Jones—bless him—sent poems to be considered for the inaugural issue—and I hadn’t solicited work from him. At that time he had published thirteen or so books, many with Copper Canyon Press. I saw the submission, and I thought, “He could publish anywhere! What is he doing sending to a fledgling journal?” I’ve since asked him about that, and he said that he had an intuition about the journal, that it would be a good place for him. Sort of mysterious. But Richard is a kind soul, a generous person, genuinely warm and caring as a poet and teacher. I’m really honored to have been able to form an editorial relationship with him. In 2018 I wrote a short review of his book Stranger on Earth. He was touched; he said he’d never been so understood as a poet. The following year he sent a manuscript, and asked if I would be interested. Until then we had been publishing chapbooks, but we hadn’t published a full-length book. He had good timing: I hadn’t mentioned this to him, but I was thinking about how to go about expanding into full-length books—a contest, solicitations, etc. So in our relationship there have been auspicious moments like that. In 2020 we brought out his Avalon. In 2021, The Minor Key.

Every editor, I suppose, has to make a decision about this balance: to what degree does the journal or press want to cultivate relationships with writers; to what degree do they want to publish as many voices as they can? I don’t find the two desires as competing, actually. I think a look at the index of Under a Warm Green Linden will evidence that; both approaches are possible. Personally, I love fostering the work of a poet across time, to see how the style and subjects develop and to see what remains constant.

ZS: Thank you for discussing editorial work in the broader context of your life, above—as a reader, in the pandemic, in politics, among the fantasies that can be key to our lives. You’re also a poet. For you, how do editing and writing work together? Do they happen in tandem?

CN: As an editor and publisher, I read all the time. I read so often for the Press that, most of the time, I can’t read the work I want to read; it’s a real conundrum. In the sense of time given, editing is a job. It’s a job I’ve chosen, and it’s a job that nourishes me, and it’s a job that I do believe helps me as a writer, in the sense that I am immersed in the art that I love. But I wouldn’t say that my writing and my editing happen in tandem. My writing is an engagement with my deep interior. Initially it’s a very private, quiet mind-place. It’s like mining; you come out of the dark interior with a trove of stuff, in hopes that you’ve hit a rich vein and aren’t just hauling a load of dross. I don’t give my writing as much time as my editorial work, but I do think of myself first as a writer. I remember an interview with John Ashberry—he said he can write for about an hour a day, and then he asked the interviewer, with apparently genuine concern, and what does one do with the remaining twenty-three? That resonated with my experience. Writing is concentrated time. I’m good for about one to three pages in a session then I have to move on to something else. I can edit, however, even my own work, all day long.

ZS: You donate a portion of the press’s profits to organizations that support reforestation. Could you tell us more about this green mission? I’m curious about the connections you might see (or not) between that environmental work and the work of poetry more broadly.

CN: I appreciate you asking about that. Green Linden Press is a nonprofit organization; our mission is to foster excellent poetry and to support reforestation with a portion of proceeds. To date we have planted 600 trees. Catastrophe has happened before in human history, of course, and countless times in geologic history, and we are living in one now. In some ways contemporary American life is a denial of history and the consequences of industrialized living. In short, the catastrophe we see now results from what we began doing to the earth about three-hundred years ago; it’s a slow unfolding. We may well be at the beginning of another mass extinction. What is one to do? It’s not a rhetorical question. Running around in a panic is a legitimate response, so is relentless protest. Despair, surrender, and denial are more common. For me, a more viable response is to pick one or two things I can do and stick with it: we plant trees, and I’m restoring a one-acre horse pasture to native Iowa prairie. It’s trite, perhaps, to say, but if everyone does one small, consistent action, it can really help. We’re seeing forests recover at a faster rate than was calculated. Sure, we’ve messed things up, probably irreversibly, and our hearts should sink for what we’ve done and what will continue to unfold for generations, but to despair and do nothing positive is an equal sin. That all being said, Under a Warm Green Linden and Green Linden Press aren’t about environmental poetry. People sometimes make that assumption, which is understandable, but by reading a sample from any of the issues of the journal one sees, I hope, an aesthetic more broad, more wild, more unpredictable, more exciting than any single genre, emphasis, or theme.

Perhaps more to the point of your question though: poetry, like all art, can be catalytic; it can make people more aware, more alive, more energized for anything. If environmental work is the intention, poetry can certainly do that. Circling back to the Essential Voices series—one of my initial ideas for an anthology was to take on environmental catastrophe (the Anthropocene), but Copper Canyon Press released Here, which is brilliant, while I was doing preliminary reading for that possible book; I decided that they had done it very well with more resources than we have, so I returned to my list of possibilities, which, I’ve learned, editors do often. The second installment in the Essential Voices anthology series, which will be published in about one year, is Essential Queer Voices of U.S. Poetry. It will showcase 100 of the most exciting poets today, introduced by the incomparable Jack Halberstam. I’ll take a moment to encourage readers to sign up for the Green Linden Press newsletter to stay abreast of its publication.