Editors Seek “the Necessary”

by Julie Funderburk

I’ve heard literary magazine editors participating in roundtable discussions explain that, while they respond to a wide variety of styles and subjects, they most seek the pieces that strike them as necessary. And I’ve come to think that this quality pertains to whether or not a piece successfully exhibits voice. We often talk about writers finding their voice, and in this sense, voice might mean individual style or authority. But I think it’s important to consider voice as a characteristic of each poem, a quality to achieve each time. In this sense, voice might mean reaching full-throatedness on the page.

How does a poet achieve this effect? A poem often creates a sense for readers that a person is speaking to them. Blank verse has been popular for centuries because it is considered close to English speech patterns. William Wordsworth famously defined a poet in Lyrical Ballads as “a man speaking to men.” As readers, we want to feel that someone is sharing a moment with us, and to lose ourselves there. This is quite different from a reader’s immediate experience being an awareness of a poem’s craft. A poem can seem well written in a number of ways and yet not exhibit a strong sense of voice—and so, it may not feel urgent or necessary.

Voice can be so persuasive that readers often have the sense that the poet is herself the speaker. Most of the time, even if a poem originates in some aspect of autobiography, the poet invariably changes the facts, simplifies or amplifies details, and draws on the imagination. Poets also sometimes wear a persona mask and speak from a completely different perspective from their own. Consider that the range of points of view available to a fiction writer are also available to a poet. So the personal pronoun “I” is not enough—voice is not just about point of view, though it is certainly a factor. Tone matters too, and so does the full rhetorical situation of a poem.

Voice lifts a poem up from the flat, two-dimensional page to the three-dimensional world. This December at Charlotte Lit, we will explore how to achieve it.

Julie Funderburk is the author of the poetry collection The Door That Always Opens from LSU Press and a chapbook from Unicorn Press. The recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, she has poetry appearing or forthcoming in The Southern Review, Ecotone, Pleiades, and Cave Wall. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte.

The Voice of the Poem: Where does a poem’s sense of urgency come from? A poem so necessary, it simply must be voiced? While there’s overlap, a poem’s voice isn’t quite the same as the poet’s style. The voice of a poem begins with structural and rhetorical choices and rings out through its tone, diction, sentences, and more. In a written text, that sense of someone speaking to you is a created illusion. A poem can seem flat on the page if this spell gets broken. The word “I” alone isn’t enough to carry a sense of voice. We’ll do some reading together to explore these ideas, and you will write something new or try out new experiments on an existing draft, to enhance the dimension of voice. Tuesday, December 6, 6:00 – 8:00 pm, in person in Studio Two. Register Here.