Susan Stewart on the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets

April 30th, 2017

Starting in 1975, the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets quickly distinguished itself as one of the most important publishing projects of its kind, winning praise from critics and poets alike and bringing out landmark books by figures such as Robert Pinsky, Ann Lauterbach, Jorie Graham, Jay Wright and Kathleen Graber. Now under the editorship of poet, critic, and MacArthur Fellow Susan Stewart, the series will continue to publish the best work of today’s emerging and established poets. 

The Co-op spoke with Series Editor, Susan Stewart, via email. 

How did you come to edit the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets in 2014, and what goals did you bring to the project? 

I was invited by the editors of the PU Press to edit the series at that time. The Press began the series in 1975 and I published my own first book under its auspices in 1981, when I was still in my twenties. I had long followed its progress and treasured the books published under the guidance of its several distinguished editors--including David Wagoner, John Hollander, and, most recently, my colleague Paul Muldoon. My main goal was and is to find strong new books that had been composed as books--that is, made with some thought to the order, sequence, and forms of the poems at the level of the volume as a whole. I also wanted to have an open competition, of course without a submission fee, each year during the month of May.

What through lines do you see, or look for, in the series, and in what sense do they appear by virtue of your working with established (Troy Jollimore) and emerging (Niall Campbell) poets, both? 

I look not only for originality of form, but also for originality of mind. I treat each submission individually and hope that as I publish two books a year I can create a series that shows much of the vitality and range of contemporary poetry in English. It's been a pleasure to keep an eye out for fresh and serious work--from the concentration of Fiona Sze-Lorrain's spare lines to the playful, near-devotional, syllabics of Eléna Rivera to the strikingly original images of Myronn Hardy and the deeply historical work of Miller Oberman.

What are the advantages of publishing a smaller number of titles from your perspective as an editor and champion of each book?

Two new books a year is actually quite a steady stream! The poetry series is a small part of Princeton's list and now our distinguished translation series also has been revived, so I am very glad for the renewed emphasis in poetry and poetics at the Press. By publishing paired titles, I am able truly to edit. I look closely at the shapes of the manuscripts and come to know well the poets' intentions and hopes for their books--from individual poems to the design, production, and reception as the books go into the world.

There seems always to be talk of poetry's resurgence in the wake of political and cultural upheaval. Do you find it useful to conceive of poetry in that "new light"? And if so, how?

Political and cultural upheaval is always a possible, even likely, context for poetry as the expression of an individual writer. Yet poetry written in response, opposition, or resistance is just as likely to be meditative and private as public and rhetorical. To my mind, poetry, indeed all of the arts, are ahead of social and political life and pave the way for the kinds of worlds we aspire to--worlds where we intend toward, and listen to, one another and where words, even when fictive and imaginary, are vehicles of truth and good faith. It is not an accident that our practices as poets, thinkers, and scholars are under attack by the current regime. Anti-intellectualism is a dangerous game, whether played in the realm of art or politics, and I believe we have a responsibility to speak up against it.