Q&A with Judith Brown

A behind-the-scenes interview with Friends Journal poetry editor

How did you start as Friends Journal poetry editor?

I’ve been Friends Journal’s poetry editor since 1995. It began when my husband and I were Friends in Residence at the Pendle Hill Conference Center. I knew Friends Journal editor Vint Deming. It was a couple of years before he retired. I had submitted some poems, and he said quite informally, “You know we really don’t have anybody to handle the poetry here at Friends Journal. Would you like to do it?”

Can you explain the selection process?

As poems come into the office, they are sent to my Washington State home. I sit at my computer while reading and mulling over the poems, figuring out what to comment about them and whether I feel they should be accepted or not. I type the draft suggestions and acceptances and email them to Philadelphia. Then, since the days of publisher Susan Corson-Finnerty and senior editor Bob Dockhorn, I’ve had conference calls with members of editorial staff, where we discuss the poems and my suggested responses. The three of us (Susan, Bob, and I) got “hooked” because it was so much fun to talk together informally about the poetry.

Over the years, I think I have become a bit more astute at reading the submitted poems, hearing their rhythms and music, as well as intuiting their meanings. I try to write comments on behalf of our editorial staff that will mean something to the poet. I enjoy the process.

What do you look for in poems that come to Friends Journal?

In evaluating a poem, I try to look for images, rhythms, and music. I don’t look so much for ideas, because I really do believe, as Archibald MacLeish said, “a poem should not mean but be.” I think  poems should not be about a theme; it’s the whole context of the poem that counts. I particularly consider the way it’s put together, not just the meaning. I find much of the poetry sent to us at Friends Journal to be a bit abstract. I feel poetry is most effective and communicative when it speaks through both its words and music. I like poetry that uses simple words and puts them together musically: simple words that carry their weight in their sound as well as their meaning. I like poems where poets have paid attention to rhythm, sound, and meaning, the whole context of the poem. Beginning poets sometimes concentrate on meaning and pay less attention to the “being” of what they’re trying to say: in other words, to the music of a poem.

I try to select poems that will immediately catch the attention of our readers. Our readers may not read the poems we publish as carefully as readers of a more literary publication might. If the poems we publish strike readers at first reading, they may be more likely to return to them and glean more.

Has there ever been a time you personally loved a poem but rejected it because it didn’t seem to fit Friends Journal?

I remember an Australian Friend wrote and sent a poem that commented on and presented its readers with horrific images of a war scene. I felt that the beautiful way the poem was put together redeemed the terrible scene and actually gave the piece tremendous power. When we had our conference, one of the other editors felt that the poem’s images were just too horrible to print in a Quaker journal. I resisted his judgment because I felt this to be one of those times when the skill of the writing and the very presentation of a horrific image redeemed the horror of the subject and made the impact of the poem more powerful. I feel that as Quakers, we sometimes deny evil rather than confront it. I wouldn’t say poetry has an obligation to confront evil, but if a poem gives us a powerful rendering of evil, I think that power should interest us in publishing it. If we deny evil, we deny a truth. Since we editors did not find unity on accepting this poem, we didn’t publish it, and I have always been sorry.

What are some common problems you see in our poetry submissions?

Some of our poetry submissions strain to rhyme by breaking a poem’s rhythms. For me that’s almost an immediate no-no. A poem doesn’t have to rhyme, particularly if the poet doesn’t select a tight form. Sometimes poems are too abstract or use too many long words: words like “association” or “transcribing” or other more Latinate words. Simpler, Anglo-Saxon words often strike me as sounding more guttural and are more moving.

I remember a poet—it might  have been Elizabeth Bishop—who said that when you write poetry, you really need to know the full meaning of every word you use. That’s a stiff requirement, but it could be something to aim for.

There is one thing that no poet should ever forget to do: read the poem out loud to see how it sounds (a poem is not finished until its rhythm is right). Also, make sure that each word carries its weight, and of course, check spellings!

Is there such a thing as Quaker poetry?

I’ve puzzled over this question. I think there is not. As Quakers we are perhaps more interested in certain kinds of poetry, especially those that have to do with our testimonies, such as peace, community, simplicity, and equality. But there are a lot of people interested in these values. As Quakers, we welcome anything that makes those testimonies more alive for us, but that doesn’t mean we can call these poems Quaker.

Early Quakers shunned poetry. I don’t think they were as aware of the effect of the arts on our humanity and on our actions. This has been one of our continuing revelations: the power of art to move us and make us more sensitive in our actions. These days we simply expect that we can use the arts to help us better understand ourselves and the world. The arts can help make our actions, meditations, and prayers more sensitive.

How did you get interested in writing?

When I was first married, I was determined to have both a family and a career. I chose writing because I thought writing was a career where I could do that, no matter how many children I had. That was probably the most bogus idea I ever had!  I tried insisting that my children nap a full two hours every afternoon and stay in bed even if they woke early, but that didn’t work. Four children distracted me from writing, particularly while they were young and at home.

Eventually, I decided that what I did as a volunteer outside the home should be something that helped my children understand more about what their mother aimed to spend her time doing.   With that criterion to help me choose what I volunteered to do, I tended to give my time to things having to do with their schools. That led to being hired as a writing teacher in my children’s high school, which helped me learn more about what good writing was but didn’t give me the time to practice writing. Sometimes at home I had to laugh at myself when I found   I was using words and writing in ways I had just told my students were less effective! Still, it was a  stimulating thing for my writing career to be teaching. My children thought I had invaded their territory, namely their school, but I have always felt lucky that I could be as close as I was to their school community and able to observe their school shenanigans from close up.

What’s the relation between poetry and novel writing?

When you write a poem every word needs to work hard and be important. When you’re writing a novel, theme and characters can do more of the work. A novel gives a more relaxed context in which to present a theme. I find it to be an easier medium. Still, as soon as I finish writing the current memoir of my family, I plan to return to poetry to practice and experience the discipline of presenting the truths that grab me in poetic form. We’ll see!

My published novel is called Turkish Wedding: Once There Was, Once There Wasn’t. It’s about an American young woman who happens to be a Quaker. She decides she’s in love with a young Turkish man studying at the University of Washington, but thinks she shouldn’t marry him before visiting his homeland with him. The setting of the novel takes its readers to Turkey and includes her first year of experiences living there. I chose this theme because I was intrigued by the intercultural marriages I witnessed while living in Turkey. In the end, none of her rationalizing about a decision works. The unexpected overwhelms her thinking.

Who are some of your own favorite poets?

In my Friends Journal correspondence, I often recommend certain poets. There’s no better way to learn how to write poetry than to read poetry. I think Mary Oliver and William Stafford are both very good reads, and I like Marianne Moore and William Butler Yeats a lot.  But these poets are only the first ones that come to mind!

I’m especially fond of the thirteenth-century Turkish poet Yunus Emre, who wandered the Anatolian Plateau singing his poems for many years. I think of him as a Sufi Muslim man  drunk with the love of God!  His poems were only written down some two hundred years after his death. In my early days living in Turkey, I worked with a Turkish woman to translate his poems into English, but it was a word-for-word translation with rhythms that didn’t stand out and meanings that were sometimes obscure. The poems didn’t sing in English. I returned to them fifty years later, bringing the words into more usable English and then self-publishing them as Sufi Flights: Poems of Yunus Emre. Now the Sufi Community of Seattle finds some of them evocative enough to want to use them in their worship.

Judith Brown

Judy Brown, a longtime Friend and writer, has been poetry editor at Friends Journal for 17 years. She has been lucky enough to live in several countries throughout her life, including Turkey, where she set her novel, Turkish Wedding: Once There Was, Once There Wasn’t. She is the mother of four children and lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

2 thoughts on “Q&A with Judith Brown

  1. Thank you. Just, thank you.

    I started writing poetry a few years ago, and I am currently 86. I have been a late bloomer all the way!
    I went to college at 38, paid work at 44 and serious writing recently. I do believe that aging can be a highlight time in a person’s life. It certainly is for me. I am so much more present and real. I value suffering and do not run from it. Interestingly, I am not suffering. I am filled with just “being here.”

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