Defying Sameness: A Conversation With Danny Lawless of Plume

An in-depth look at Plume Poetry and Plume Anthology with Danny Lawless, editor-in-chief.

Alex Cigale: “Le jardin reste ouvert pour ceux qui l’ont aimé.” Plume’s motto is the concluding line of Jacques Prévert’s “Vainement.” Could you connect for us Plume’s literary influences with the spot you see Plume inhabiting on the poetry journal literary map?

Danny Lawless: Michaux, Prevert, Follain, Parra, Ponge. These, and so many others, are transformational apparitions from a world beyond my provincial one, growing up in Louisville, Kentucky.

There was Breton, of course, the most famous name, whose poetry I now think did not prosper in the shade of his political and artistic manifestos that descended into fiats and excommunications. But one proceeds by allusion, right? A sort of overhearing. So in the course of taking in all of Breton—I was persistent—I made the acquaintance of Desnos, Reverdy, Char.

The book that all but exploded in my hands was Benedikt’s The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology. And so I read these people for years and years—over four decades, and when it was time to begin work on what would become Plume, there was no question regarding what its “aesthetic” would be. And, I suppose, making Plume was an act of conservation, for these poets had fallen out of fashion, if they were ever in it, in the United States.

I wanted to introduce these voices to other readers, to connect with those who knew and loved them as I did. I thought if future contributors had read as I had (and I discovered many had), then we would be of like minds, sharing certain affinities and antipathies—that their work would be what I liked and admired, and that publishing it would be a pleasure.

AC: How did Plume get its start?

DL: All of my reading (and I was relentless for a good couple of decades!) I see now was in preparation for . . . something, which turned out to be Plume. My tastes coalesced, I knew what I liked and why, but had no earthly idea what to do with such information.

One day, teaching a creative writing class, I happened upon a student building his own website for a literary journal. I was astonished: I shouldn’t have been, of course, but I was. And I immediately realized this was what I had been waiting for. Corny, right? This late-life epiphany? But true.

After that class we met for coffee. He (Jason Cook, editor of The Ampersand Review/Press) showed me more of what he was up to. He assured me that he could help me do something similar—and we were off. I was drawn to the spare, home-grown look of seventies’ journals. And the idea of presenting only twelve poems—that came from my subsequent perusal of other online journals.

I started sending query emails, never dreaming anyone would respond. I think the first, Maureen McLane, came back with poems attached within half an hour. By the end of the next few days, we had more than we could run in a single issue. People have been incredibly generous for no discernable reason, and continue to be.

Not to say I don’t from time to time think about Plume’s success, such as it is, and haven’t formulated some guesses: I think that twelve poems format has a lot to do with it, for example. It seems just right: not too brief, not too lengthy. A digestible small meal. A poet just emailed me saying how much she enjoyed the journal, that it was Zen-like in its calm presentation of remarkably dynamic poetry. I’ll take that! Another, at a Plume reading, noted that she was glad that Plume allowed her so much freedom, that, given its quality, Plume challenged her to bring her A game.

And the absence of advertisements and reviews allowed the poems to do the talking. Also, there is the Francophile aspect that appeals to some (and no doubt repulses others). Finally, I think that Plume has a discernable aesthetic in all its eclecticism, a clear and solitary ”voice.” I hope this is the case, because that voice is quite frankly mine. I choose the poets, the poems, and correspond with the poets, always.

AC: With my apologies for making you choose among your children: some of your favorite translations you’ve published?

DL: Ah, Alex, you know that your work with Gennady Aygi and Alexander Ulanov is marvelous (and we have more projects on the way). I’m not sure I have favorites in languages I don’t know, which unfortunately includes most everything outside of French, some Spanish and Italian (with my wife’s help). I rely on the work in English to guide me: is this right for Plume? But as I strolled through the Archives hoping to answer your questions some names did jump out.

I think of Steve Bradbury’s work with Xi Chuan and Hsia YüStuart Friebert and Kuno Raeber, Karl Krolow, and  Sylva Fischerová; Michael Thomas Taren and Tomaž Šalamun; the wonderful collaboration of Hoyt Rogers and Paul Auster in translating André du Bouchet; Idra Novey and  Flávia Rocha; Daniel Bourne’s magnificent presentation of the work of Krzysztof Kuczkowski; Lydia Davis’s obvious affiliation with the poetry of A. L. Snidjers; David Young’s take on Hölderlin; Fady Joudah’s work with Ghasssan Zaqtan; Ani Gjika and Luljeta LLeshanakuJohn Taylor’s translations of Ana Minga and Lorenzo Calogero; Marilyn Hacker’s presentations of Emmanuel Moses . . . so many!

AC: Could you tell us about Plume’s feature section and the Plume Annual anthology? Is there a difference between the work online and in print?

DL: I liked very much our original format: twelve poems and a short Editor’s Note. But something seemed to be missing: I had work from poets I admired, in some cases for so many years, or work that seemed to need a larger canvas, and wanted desperately to publish it in some way. So, the Featured Selection appeared an ideal solution: it would not clutter the site in that it added only a single entry, yet allowed the reader if he or she wished to explore more widely, or I should say deeply, the work of a particular poet.

Regarding the annual Print Plume Anthology of Poetry . . . From the start, I knew I wanted a print presence. After all, those of us of a certain age grew up with books! And I knew, too, that our contributors were, many of them, of that middle-career status, too, and valued print highly—and I think I had those feelings as well.

I like that we have evolved over the last few years, and that now Plume—in both incarnations—publishes only new work. There’s just a lot more of it. The last volume (the third) is a weighty 323 pages. I have been particularly pleased that a number of colleges and low-residency MFA programs have begun adopting the print anthologies as texts for their students.

AC: What do you think Plume means for contemporary English-language poetics?

DC: There are more poets than ever, but less chance of being read, I think. Truly read. And colleges and universities seem to make a healthy living churning them out. Or, no: that’s unfair. More and more people appear to want to know how to write better poems, and to see their work published, and these programs provide that service. But there is the very real phenomenon of the “MFA poem”—a certain sameness that becomes clear to anyone who as an editor reads a few hundred poems a month, or more.

At the same time, I think that the quality of work has improved: at least in the work I see. Almost everyone who sends poems to Plume has mastered her craft, or will one day. I worry that the need to publish, fueled by academia, has left poets searching for subjects, rather than allowing the subjects to find them. I don’t see as many poems that have that I had to write this quality.

I don’t think it has vanished altogether; I know it hasn’t. I find such poems regularly, here and there, and publish them. But there is fragmentation to be contended with: so many channels, so much choice. Or is it that poetry doesn’t hold our attention as it once did: the days of “Howl,” and even Frost. Who in the United States could, if asked, name more than a handful of poets, if any? What constitutes a poetry bestseller?

Some like this state of things, and others bemoan the depths to which poetry has fallen in the popularity charts. There are good reasons for both perspectives. Still, can one doubt that poetry will continue to be written, and that those who read it will have their lives forever altered in the reading of it? I don’t believe so. What forms of delivery that might take, what kind of poetry that might be: only a fool would pretend to have the slightest idea.

AC: Where do you see Plume heading in the future?

DL: A few items come to mind. With the current issue, we have a design refresh, keeping the twelve poem and Featured Selection format, but working with font, background, and so on. And the “spare” look definitely stays.

More generally, we are considering adding reviews: there aren’t enough reviews of new poetry books, I don’t think, and I’d like to do this, but finding a short rotation of top-quality reviewers. I don’t see us ever going the advertisement or contest route. Last, I have in mind, and have had some discussions about, forming a small publishing venture—say, Plume Editions—and working with a larger house to offer perhaps four books a year, which I would select and edit. We’ll see.


With the August 2015 edition, Plume celebrates a half-century, its 50th monthly issue! For blog posts about the journal’s beginnings, see New Pages, The Review ReviewPorter Square Books, and Nicelle Davis. For other blogs and interviews with Daniel Lawless, see American University in ParisIn Order of ImportanceMary Mackey and The Review Review (“Curating Eclectic Online Poetry Magazine”). For Daniel Lawless’s own poetry, see B O D Y literatureCortland Review, and SNReview.  


Alex Cigale is contributing editor for translations at Plume. Asymptote has published his Russian translations, of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s To His Beloved Self and Gennady Aygi’s “Four Pieces”, his poem after Sergei Paradjanov’s “Color of Pomegranates”, and interviews with him about EXODICKERING, the Selected Poems of Serge Segay (his xexoxial editions Kickstarter project), and editing the recent Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review. He wrote on the latter (week of July 13-17) at Best American Poetry blog. From 2011-2013, he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He is a 2015 NEA Fellow for his work on Mikhail Eremin.