A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
On Friday, we caught up with poet, blogger, editor and activist Michael Simms at his kitchen table where he was preparing his Saturday morning post for Vox Populi.
Vox Populi, which you call “a gazette of the left,” publishes a wide variety of genres. Is there a schedule? That is, does VP post certain kinds of items on specific days of the week, or is it simply random?
There is a weekly schedule, but I often vary it. I usually post two items each day:
What kind of poetry do you like?
I’ve always loved poetry that has a clear voice, a strong reliance on craft, and a sense that a person is speaking about ideas or incidents that are of utmost importance to him or her. I dislike poems that are merely word games, or that don’t sound authentic. I like traditional fixed forms, such as the sonnet and the villanelle, although few contemporary American poets use these forms well. I like translations, but they need to be rendered as effective poems in English. Some of my favorite poets are James Wright, Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, W.S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, Robert Hayden, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anna Akhmatova, Lucille Clifton, Wendell Berry, Philip Levine, Federico García Lorca, Naomi Shihab Nye and Emily Dickinson. The sound of the poem is the most important quality, and when I’m reading it on the page, I will often say the poem out loud in order to hear the music. I have a number of poems memorized.
Here is one of my favorite poems, a Petrarchan sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Do you publish fiction?
We don’t publish fiction although we might in the future. That being said, some of our authors, such as Meg Pokrass, write lovely short pieces they call “flash fiction,” but I think of them as prose poems.
Since almost everything VP publishes has a political aspect to it, whether overtly in an editorial or documentary, or more subtly in a poem’s point of view, please tell our readers what your political views are.
Vox Populi is unapologetically progressive, favoring Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders over other presidential candidates. We — that is, almost all my friends and I — despise Donald Trump and everything he stands for. We are pro-union, pro-civil rights and anti-war. We are vehemently opposed to the state killing people whether through war, executions, or extra-judicial killings by the police. We believe that the judicial system in the United States is broken and needs to be fixed. We believe that racism, classism and bigotry need to be discussed openly. We are in favor of tolerant gentle enlightened relations between the many genders. We believe that animals have rights, as do rivers and forests. We believe that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, and the wildfires, floods, and extreme weather we are experiencing globally are the direct result of burning fossil fuels. We admire Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Jane Addams, Mahatma Gandhi, Henry Thoreau, Stanley Rother, Daniel Berrigan, Sophie Scholl, and Raging Grannies. We like the ACLU, Doctors w/o Borders, J Street and Planned Parenthood. We love dogs, children, gardeners, artists, musicians, poets, activists and vegan chefs. We also like to laugh.
When we publish a conservative author, it is either as a foil for an author we agree with, such as the famous Cambridge debate between William F. Buckley and James Baldwin, or as an example of great writing. Besides, the left doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas: some conservative writers bring up really good points — David Brooks, for example, is awesome.
Why don’t you read unsolicited submissions?
Well, first because it’s a lot of work reading submissions and corresponding with writers. I’m retired from a long career in publishing, and I don’t want to work as hard as I used to. And second, I already have far more material than I can possibly publish at the rate of two pieces per day. On the internet, there is a huge amount of great work that’s in the public domain or on open license. The best publishers of progressive political articles, such as Common Dreams, TomDispatch, The Guardian and Orion Magazine, allow me to publish their pieces without charge. Through Vimeo, YouTube and SoundCloud, I have access to great films and music. And many of the best poets in the country, such as Stephen Dobyns, Sandy Solomon, Joan E. Bauer, Robert Gibb, Arlene Weiner, Jose Padua and Doug Anderson, have given me permission to publish their work whenever I want to. I simply don’t have room to take on more poets.
Why doesn’t Vox Populi accept donations?
I spent many years raising money for nonprofit organizations, and it became clear to me that some people expect special treatment in return for their donations. They give money to a nonprofit publisher, and they expect the gift to improve their chances of being published. Wealthy people, in particular, often have the attitude that everything has a price and flashing their money can give them a place at the head of the line. This attitude is understandable since virtually every institution in America works in this way. Rich people buy athletic scholarships for their children in Ivy League schools; they finagle reduced sentences for their financial crimes; they lobby for special legislation that favors them; they can even purchase a candidacy in the Democratic presidential primary. From the perspective of wealthy people, everything is for sale.
Vox Populi costs only about $400 a year to publish, and I’d rather absorb that cost myself, rather than slide into the ambiguity of a transactional relationship with a donor. Or, to put it more bluntly, I don’t want people thinking they can buy their way into Vox Populi.
Do you ever make editorial mistakes?
Never. The typos are there for a purpose. My mother, who was part Cherokee, often said that you should always make sure there are mistakes in your work, so the gods will not be jealous.
About once a week, you publish a poem or essay that you’ve written. Isn’t this vanity publishing? Aren’t you ashamed?
Yes, it is vanity publishing, and no, I’m not ashamed. It’s my party and I can publish what I want to. I’m an old man and I don’t have time to submit my work to The New Yorker and wait six months to hear from them. Any day now, I may drop dead while checking my Submittable page. Besides, my writing is really good, and everyone should have the right to read it. Especially my poems. You should memorize my poems…
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with our readers.
Michael Simms is the founding editor of Autumn House Press, Coal Hill Review, and Vox Populi.
Copyright 2020 Michael Simms