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Interview with Reb Livingston
February 19, 2007

This interview was done through email. Answers and
questions have only been edited for spelling, grammar, etc...
No content has been changed.
1. First off, congratulations on being picked for the 2006 Best American
Poetry Anthology. Tell me a little about your experience with that. For
example, when did you find out and what were you doing at the time? Did
they call/email etc... and what did you think when they did contact you?

Thank you. A huge surprise barely describes it. I received an e-mail from
Mark Bibbins, David Lehman's assistant, with the subject "The Best
American Poetry 2006" and a one sentence instruction to read the
attached file. I was excited because I thought a poem from the online
journal I edit,
No Tell Motel (www.notellmotel.org), was selected for
inclusion. As I opened the file I momentarily panicked thinking perhaps it
was a spoofed e-mail with a virus -- as an editor I get those sometimes.
Those were the two things swirling in my head -- the possibility one of
*my* poems being selected never occurred to me until after I read the

Overall having a poem included in BAP is a wonderful experience. The
best part is the opportunity to have my work read by thousands of readers
-- a rare chance for a poet. Meeting strangers familiar with (and even
liking) my poem can be surreal because I'm accustomed to a readership of
10-20 other poets. Criticism of the work in the anthology can be
unpleasant, but fair game. My least favorite part is enduring the
occasional angry weirdo using the attention the anthology receives as an
excuse to make over-the-line, inappropriate personal attacks. Makes me
thankful I'll never be famous.

2. When did you start writing poetry and why?

In college. Maybe I wrote a few poems when I was a kid, but my juvenilia
comprised mostly of plays and manifesto-ish texts. For most of my
childhood I lived in my grandparent's house where there were hundreds of
books, periodicals and encyclopedias -- lots of literature, popular and
some literary, but very few poems, definitely not a single volume dedicated
to poetry. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to write, but thought I'd
be doing journalism and fiction. In fact the only reason I took my first
poetry course was because it was required of all Creative Writing majors.
It wasn't like I instantly showed promise at either reading or writing poems.
It's doubtful any of my early poetry teachers considered me a serious
student at all. Initially even I didn't consider myself a serious poetry
student, let alone a poet.

There were a number of events that put me on the track, one was a huge
fallout with a fiction workshop teacher that kind of ruined fiction writing for
me, although I took several more fiction workshops and courses with
teachers I liked a great a deal.

In the end it was an intuitive decision that I can't much explain, it was
something I decided to do, something foreign, something I found difficult,
something that weirdly felt right.

Or the short answer:  Poetry was the only thing willing to take me.

3. Why did you decide to create the No Tell Motel online magazine and
what are you looking for when you read submissions?

I always wanted to edit a poetry magazine. For a brief time I discussed
starting one with two friends from Bennington, but it never got past the
planning stage. Wildly different ideas about poetry and what the magazine
needed to be stalled our plans and I got the very strong feeling most of my
ideas would get squelched while I'd be doing the bulk of work, especially
the unglamorous and time consuming day-to-day things my potential
co-editors expressed no interest in even discussing. Three editors of an
online magazine and only one knew anything about HTML or content
programming -- me! I pulled out of the project - my concerns had merit
because once I wasn't involved nothing else happened. That was good.  I
kept both editors as friends -- that might not have been the case if we tried
to go through with it.

Years afterward I still thought about doing a magazine, but didn't have the
nerve to do it on my own. Didn't have any real experience, what if it
sucked and everyone laughed?, who did I think I was anyway? That sort
of stuff. Eventually I got over myself after seeing many of my peers start
publications. Finally the light bulb: the only thing stopping me was myself.  
Settled on some very specific ideas of what I wanted to do -- invited my
brilliant friend, Molly Arden, to assist editorially.  We worked all summer
2004 getting it ready, soliciting poets, agreeing on a design, getting  
help putting together a content management database. That was same  
summer I wrote "That's Not Butter" (the poem in BAP), designed jewelry
and built a little person in my womb.  For as ill and exhausted as I found
myself -- I got a lot done -- truly a season of creation.

The short answer to what we're looking for when we read submissions:   
poems we really like.

Forget all that "best" and "greatest" stuff, all that posturing, we don't
consider ourselves little canon-making editors in training. That's
somebody else's job -- not mine -- and I write this just a few strokes after
writing it was "wonderful" to be included in an anthology that starts with
the word "Best."  I'm aware of the perception of conflict.  Well life is full of

The long answer:  Since each week NTM highlights a single poet, each  
weekday publishing a new poem, we're looking for vibrant, exciting,
interesting poems that in some way flow together or build on or connect
with each other. However direct or indirect.  I don't view editing as a
science, there's a lot of sense and intuition involved -- that doesn't exclude
thought or critical decision-making. Editing is comprised of a series of
hard-to-define, developed and honed skills.  Like a poem, I'm drawn to my
husband and sure I can list a bunch of things I like about him:  he's good
looking, considerate, loving, charming, tall, successful, buys me presents,
the list goes on -- but that doesn't begin to truly describe why him and not  
someone else. We don't run NTM like a dating service: "looking for poems
30-40, six feet or taller, athletic build, non-smoker, white collar profession,
agnostic, interested in gourmet cooking . . . are you our dream poem?"  
We read and consider all the submissions, no matter who they're from,
any style, camp, agenda. The only automatic rejections go to authors who
don't follow our guidelines and poems we consider sexist, racist or
homophobic -- the equivalent to showing up for a blind date with a booger
hanging from your nose. Some impressions one can't recover.  We may
be open to lots of things, but yeah, we can be kind of bitchy.

4. Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has influenced your work?

My answers to these questions change frequently. I find myself in different
periods, loving work I once hated and vice versa.  My beginning influence
was clearly Anne Sexton -- no single poet made a bigger impression on
me during my late teens and early 20's.  It's a cliche for young women (of
my generation, at least) starting in poetry to be either Sexton or Plath.  
Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. So let's say my earliest roots are
Sexton-Lauperion. I still feel the Lauper influence, but can't say I've
thought much about Sexton in at least a decade.  Recently I came across
a bizarre comment describing NTM poems as very Sexton-ish and spit up
my cocoa on the keyboard. Maybe I need to go back and re-read Sexton.

In grad school I focused heavily on D.H. Lawrence and Federico Garcia
Lorca -- looking back, perhaps an unusual combination.

Frank O'hara's work, the spirit, movement and flow of his poems, has  
been a lasting influence. Some Getrude Stein.

But these days, a lot of my favorite writers are contemporary, many close
to my age, I identify with my siblings, not my grandparents (that doesn't
mean I don't love, respect and appreciate them, I do!) -- and I know that
gets some folks riled up, as if a poet living today hasn't proved herself yet
and has to go through the "test of time" and be endured and blah blah
blah.  Like I said earlier, I don't care about those kinds of measures.  I'm
not going to be alive in 100 years, what do I care what those people think?
I don't need their affirmation to validate what I like now.  I might not even
care for the people of the 22nd century.  They might be cat-eating, UGG-
wearing, pig fuckers -- with boogers hanging from their noses. Well dear
poetry readers of the 22nd century, I most certainly do not approve and
am glad you're not reading the same poems as I.

Many of my favorite contemporary poets can be found at
www.notellmotel.org.  Ha hah, is that tacky? It's true.  Amy Gerstler,
Rebecca Loudon, Bruce Covey, Anne Boyer, Allyssa Wolf, Karl Parker
and on and on, they're there and the list is growing.

5. Included in this issue is your poem "Fragile Takes Stand." Every time I
read it (even though I already know how it ends) it vividly sets up a
specific scene and in my imagination I have a clear picture of what this
fragile female, as well as the courtroom and the prosecutor look like. Did
you base this poem on anything in particular or what was your inspiration
for that poem?

That poem is from a series inspired from New York Times articles during
The Great Depression. The journalism style was rich and often
humorously detail-heavy, so much implication with so few words. I like
implication and borrowed the technique along with some content and
themes. The particular article I based "Fragile" on covered a trial, spent
very little space reporting the actual testimony, but the struggles of this
timid, well-to-do woman scrounging her courage to testify in court -- and
what she was wearing, of course.

6. What's next for your poetry?

Recently No Tell Books (the poetry press I started last year --
www.notellbooks.org) put out my collaborative chapbook with Ravi
Shankar called Wanton Textiles (
www.notellbooks.org/wanton).  My first
"full-length" collection, Your Ten Favorite Words, will be out this fall from
Coconut Books.  It's a series of poems written while pregnant and raising
a baby that have absolutely nothing to do with that -- with the exception of
when some poems invoke weight gain. This book was truly a distraction
from a challenging (although mostly happy) period of my life.  I suspect I'll
be writing my pregnancy/baby poems at a very different point in my life
when those things will seem a welcome distraction.

I'm in the early stages of a new manuscript that I envision as being a kind
of grimoire -- but that will likely evolve and change and like all my projects,
turn out to be something quite different than my original intention.

7. Where do you see yourself and your work in 10 years?

I see myself in 10 years as a 44 year-old mother of a 12 year old son.  I
envision him having a good eye to help with line editing and layout.  I
expect I'll belong to a PTA or some similar unimaginable organization
requiring my constant thinking of the children.  I see myself married to the
same guy I am today, publishing other poets' poems and books and
writing my own poems and books. I see my future not-yet-written poems
as being different and more interesting than what I've written up-to-date,
not to diss what I've done so far, but because the idea of peaking or
stagnating in my 30's is depressing. Basically I want to build and grow on
what I've done now -- and maybe drive a nicer car, not that I'm dissing my
current car.

8. Anything else you want to say?

It's 3:40 a.m. -- so, at the moment, no!  Thanks for showing interest  
in my work and projects.
The Scrambler