“Showcasing the region’s diversity”: Okla Elliott & Hannah Stephenson on New Poetry from the Midwest

New Poetry from the midwestSeveral years ago, New American Press acquired the New Stories from the Midwest anthology series (coedited by Jason Lee Brown and Shanie Latham), which had previously been published by Indiana University Press and Ohio University Press. This quickly led to the idea of starting the New Poetry from the Midwest series. We began work on the 2014 volume with the goal of harvesting and dishing up the marvelous range of Midwestern poetry that is currently being published every moment–now, and now, and now. Sure, Midwestern poetry contains cornfields and apple pie, but it also has great (and to many, but not us, surprising) diversity—in terms of author demographics, content, and style. And the final product did not disappoint. We proudly showcased many up-and-coming poets alongside established luminaries. Ruth Awad, Robert Archambeau, David Baker, Richard Cecil, George David Clark, Rebecca Dunham, Rochelle Hurt, Rita Mae Reese, Natalie Shapero, and Lee Upton are just a few names that appear there. Our project also ended up the focus of an AWP panel in 2014, with panelists including both of us, the final judge Lee Ann Roripaugh, and anthology contributors Kathy Fagan and John Gallaher.

The selection process is as follows: poets or journals/presses submit work published in the previous two years, the two of us read all of that work, and then we forward what we’ve selected to that year’s judge for the Heartland Poetry Prizes. Three poets win $100 each, but they are not ranked one, two, and three. The idea is that these are equal winners, since by that point, it becomes subjective hairsplitting which work was the best.

Our battle cry while compiling these anthologies somehow became Fick Ja!. The phrase is a literal translation of Fuck yes!, though it makes no sense in German. We typed it over and over, in gchats and emails, and imagined printing it on t-shirts and totes. Truthfully, we’re not exactly sure how it started. Okla’s knowledge of German met Hannah’s enthusiastic potty mouth. It’s what we say to one another while sorting through hundreds of stunning submissions, or proofreading in the wee hours. It’s our slogan that means, “Fuck Yes/Keep Going/Onward and Upward!”

The procedural facts of the anthology aside and the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the editors aside, we thought the best way to discuss our editorial process was, well, a discussion about our process. We therefore both answered the following agreed-upon questions.


Some poems just beg to be published and republished. Which poems from this year’s anthology immediately leapt up to greet you, happy puppy-style?

HS: Here are a just a few to dangle tantalizingly before you. Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s work and voice is so potent and charged–I am such a fan of all he produces. Jeffrey Bean’s poems are tender and earnest, addressing the reader as “Kid,” infusing the relationship between poet and reader with familiarity and love. One of my favorite poems in the anthology by Steve Tomasko discusses love poems and sloths, and it made me sputter, laugh, and sigh. Sandra Lindow’s “Cinderella Breast” is arresting and startling, reimagining breast cancer treatment through the lens of the fairy tale.

OE: Wow, it would be harder to name ones that didn’t make me perk up like an otter at attention. One of the side effects of limiting the anthology to previously published work is that everything we get has been vetted at least once and often several times. Maggie Smith’s work always wows me, and I love Todd Kaneko’s use of popular culture. Sean Karns can do things with issues affecting the working class in such a humanizing way that I am happy to have him in this year’s anthology just as we did last time. But I think the poets’ whose work made me jump out of my seat and throw my hands in the air with joy the most this time around were Fatimah Asghar, Pamela Miller, and Eva Olsgard. That said, this is somewhat like asking a parent to choose a most beloved child. I was incredibly happy with our first edition, and I think—if I may say so—that we outdid ourselves with the 2016 edition.

What does Midwestern poetry have to offer right now? Why turn toward these writers and their words?

OE: This is the part of the country that determines elections and college football viewing and creative writing education in equal measure. Understanding the soul of this region is therefore of incalculable immensity.

HS: What Okla says about our influence, yes. I lived in Vancouver, BC, in Canada for a time, and reviewed books by Canadian authors. I became very intrigued by looking at art as a regional export/specialty, as well as an individual and national product. I love how Canadian publishers, writers, and artists really strive to lift up one another’s work, in terms of financial support and generosity of attention. “American” poetry is such a multi-tentacled beast…I like the idea of looking (with some of that same generosity and advocacy) at just a few limbs to see how they help the creature go. I also think that the Midwest produces incredible creativity and empathy and the ability to look out and daydream/mourn (well, that’s all artists). These poems may have their seeds or roots in the Midwest, but they reach inward and outward. They take notice of our world, in all its damage and beauty. As a Midwestern artist, I want to nurture what I see growing and thriving, especially empathy and heightened emotional awareness.

When reading or selecting a poem for inclusion in this anthology, what are you looking for or thinking? What does it feel like to you when you read a poem you’d like to republish?

HS: I crave poems that capture an individual’s experience in a voice and perspective that is wholly idiosyncratic to the poet. Certainty is also a quality of all poems I admire. When I read a poem, I want to fully believe in its machinery and logic and heart. I want to think, without any doubt, “There is no other way that this poem could be.” I also think that vulnerability and trusting the reader is essential, even (especially?) in experimental poems.

OE: My first thought is, of course, quality. But I also want to expand the horizons in the cultural imagination about it means to live and write in or about the Midwest. People too often think of the Midwest as flyover country covered in wheat and cornfields—and don’t get me wrong, there is a fair amount of that, but the Polish and Mexican neighborhoods in Chicago are also the Midwest, as are the rustbelt cities of Milwaukee and Detroit, and even those cornfields hide more diversity than the Hollywood imagination admits.

If this anthology were a movie, what would it look like? If this anthology were music, what would it sound like?

OE: Cinematically it would be a beautiful and (in)coherent chaos. Musically, it would be an eleven-hour concept album co-composed by Bruce Springsteen in collaboration with the ghosts of Johnny Cash and David Bowie. That album would, of course, be titled Fick Ja!

HS: Cinematically–not quite the epic vision of A Force Awakens, more like the (semi) tightened narrative scope of Rogue One, poured through a Coen Brothers self-deprecating, absurd filter, with a dash of Wes Anderson’s color and specificity. In terms of a song…a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, John Legend, and Lydia Loveless.


We plan to continue the series alongside the other Midwest anthologies produced by New American Press and its editors. Showcasing the region’s diversity has been and will always be a central goal of the series. We are a diverse region—and a diverse country—and this should be and will be celebrated.
Okla Elliott is an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a certificate in legal studies from Purdue University. His work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming).
Hannah Stephenson is the author of In the Kettle, the Shriek (Gold Wake Press), editor of The Ides of March: An Anthology of Ohio Poets (Columbus Creative Cooperative), and a poetry and arts blogger for The Huffington Post; her writing has appeared in publications that include The Atlantic, Hobart, 32 Poems, Sixth Finch, Poetry Daily, and The Nervous Breakdown.