Choosing Poems for Thousands to Read: the Common Threads Editor

Alice Kociemba, Jill McDonough, and Lisa Olstein

Alice Kociemba, Jill McDonough, and Lisa Olstein

by Jacquelyn Malone

Would you like to decide which six to eight poems thousands of Massachusetts residents will read in the next year? Though choosing poems is not the only task for next year’s Common Threads editor, it is a principal duty, and as Mass Poetry looks ahead, it is looking for a new editor.

To give you a sense of what the position is like, we asked three poets who have occupied the position a few questions about their experience. Those poets have been Lisa Olstein (2014 editor), Jill McDonough (2013 editor), and Alice Kociemba (2015 and 2016 editor).

What was the most difficult part of the job?
All three former editors felt the most difficult part of the job was choosing the poems, but each had a different take on what made it difficult. To help her with the process Jill McDonough, the winner of a 2014 Lannan Literary Fellowship and three Pushcart prizes, gave herself “lots of filters and limitations to be able to stay focused; deciding to keep the poems thematically related helped a lot.” She also felt that knowing “all the folks who had already been chosen helped me reset those parameters, too.”

Lisa Olstein, who co-founded and for ten years co-directed the Juniper Initiative for Literary Arts and Action at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, found the most challenging part of selecting the poems was “adjusting the lens in search of the right aperture, that is, figuring out how to approach the idea of what makes a poet or her poem related to Massachusetts: questions of identity, claiming, and belonging; of province and provincialism; of definitions, their opportunities and their limitations.

Alice Kociemba, the most recent Common Threads editor who was also the founder and until recently the director of the West Falmouth Library reading series Calliope, thinks the task of choosing requires lots of patience. “The most time-consuming task awaiting the 2017 guest editor is the selection of a range of excellent, accessible, ‘discussable’ poems, suited to engaging eager readers of Common Threads. After consulting over a dozen thoughtful and knowledgeable poets, I chose eight poems from a pool of over 250 poems that they recommended.  The 2015 & 2016 choices of four men and four women poets for each collection, represent diversity of region and of voice, and are designed to deeply engage a general audience in a discussion of the meaning and the craft of contemporary poetry. The selection process is not ‘difficult.’  It has been my ‘happy obsession,’ unless you talk to my poet-friends, who may say that, for them, it was very difficult to listen to my continual 'what about…. or maybe this one…?'"

What was the most enjoyable part of the job?
All three poets also enjoyed the role of Common Threads editor. Lisa says, “It was a great if somewhat daunting pleasure to be obliged by Common Thread's purpose and parameters to say something direct, vital, and economical about what felt urgent in each poem, to point toward their depths, toward what in them makes me love them in their specificity and in what they suggest beyond their own boundaries about what poems can do for and to us.”

Jill loved “being able to move past those early stages, to start to see it [the Common Threads project] come together—and hearing from people who were happy to get a copy was a pleasure, too.”

For Alice the enjoyment spread not only in depth but across a good portion of the Commonwealth. By far the most enjoyable feature was “facilitating or participating in over twenty Common Threads groups (mainly in local libraries) around the Commonwealth! From the vantage point of listening to the intended audience for Common Threads, I learned to deeply appreciate the reader and understand how every person (whether a novice or seasoned reader) brings a unique perspective, rich with personal meaning, to the discussion of the collection as a whole.  Even though I was quite familiar with these poems, I learned something new each and every time I listened to a group’s discussion and went away with a renewed enthusiasm for Common Threads as a very special outreach project of Mass Poetry.”

What advice would you give to next year’s editor?
Alice says,
Well, first of all, facilitate a Common Threads group (or two) in your local community (a library, a church, a senior center, a coffee shop, a potluck) and learn first-hand how everyone has an interesting 'take' on excellent poems read aloud. Don’t rely on your own bias or preference about poetry. Search, instead, for what will appeal to readers from all walks of life, and all poetic persuasions. Consider asking a wide assortment of poet-readers to advise you. And lastly, have a lot of fun! Common Threads is more than a labor of love, it is an exciting (and may I say 'addictive') way to meet strangers and learn why there is such a hunger to discuss poetry. In an often ugly and isolated world, Common Threads provides an opportunity for meaningful connection.”

Jill puts her advice succinctly. “My advice to the next editor would be to take your time, to start early and enjoy the process; it’s an excuse to read so many great poems.”

If you are interested in applying for the position, see the guidelines and the application form here.

lice Kociemba’s new book, Bourne Bridge, will be available from WordTech soon. She is the author of a chapbook Death of Teaticket Hardware (2010).  Her recent poems have appeared in the Atlanta Review, Off the Coast, Roanoke Review, Salamander, Slant among other journals.  Alice is a member of the Advisory Boards of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and the Jamaica Pond Poets.

Jill McDonough’s books of poems include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), and Where You Live (Salt, 2012).  The recipient of three Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, NEA, NYPL, FAWC, and Stanford, her work appears in Slate, The Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. She directs the MFA program at UMass-Boston and 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online. Her fourth poetry collection, REAPER, is forthcoming from Alice James Books.

Lisa Olstein’s first book of poems, Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (2006), won the Copper Canyon Press Hayden Carruth Award. Olstein is also the author of the poetry collections Lost Alphabet (2009), named one of the nine best poetry books of the year by Library Journal, and Little Stranger (2013). Her poems have appeared in the Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, LIT, and other journals. She has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Centrum. She now teaches in the New Writers Project at the University of Texas-Austin.