A Letter to Grownups
from the co-founder and artistic director of Polyphony HS
Some time after April 15, 2010, the deadline for submissions for this issue, I met a friend
and poet, Laura Van Prooyen, for a cup of coffee. During her days as a graduate student
Laura spent a semester studying with the poet Heather McHugh. As I spoke with Laura
about my work with Polyphony HS, she told me that morning what Heather once said
about poetry. “Poetry is not our occasions,” McHugh said. “It’s what we do with our
I’m taking some liberty with McHugh’s statement—it’s at least twice-paraphrased—but
I’ve thought much about it while putting the finishing touches on this volume of
I have read every one of the 1, 076 submissions that crossed my laptop this year, and
each one of them is a kind of testament to McHugh’s statement.
It is easy, perhaps, to dismiss the occasions of the young—we have lived three and four
and five times as long as they. How much can they possibly have gone through at
fourteen? we ask. How much at eighteen?
It is easier, still, perhaps, to dismiss the art of the young. This is as true, I think, for those
of who have studied craft as for those who have not. How much can they possibly know at
this age? we ask.
Most of us know, though, that we are fools to dismiss their occasions of disconnection:
the divorces and breakups and fallings and partings and dyings, small and large, and their
occasions of connection as well: their births and crushes and loves and risings; these
stories comprise their lives as certainly as they comprise our own.
But we are even greater fools to dismiss their attempts at making art—at doing something
with their occasions, for we cannot speak of our hope for a better world, we cannot speak
of our interest in the human gain if, at the same time, with the same mouth, we dismiss
the art of the young.
Not every one of the 1,076 submissions that came to us this year made poetry, made art,
made beauty of the occasions of their young lives, but the origins of these attempts—the
beginnings of these seventy-nine published works in your hands, as well as the 997
pieces that aren’t published here—represent the occasions of the young.
But here’s the thing: each of the 1,076 submissions we received this year represents an
attempt of a teenager to make art of life, to put words—precise and beautiful—to the
thing urging for release within. And in that way every submission we receive is
something to be celebrated, something to be recognized, is some kind of triumph.
And despite the ever-changing, ever-foggy, ever-uncertain world I wake up to every day,
this single certainty continues to fill me with hope: there are countless young poets and
writers out there who are looking for some poetic and literary value in their occasions,
trying to turn the beautiful and lovely and dark and troubled occasions of their young
lives into something that makes sense.
It is this sense of the value and import and triumph of every submission that we expect
our editors—all high school students from around the country—to understand when they
sit down to edit and comment on the fiction, poetry, and nonfiction we receive from
around the world. Through our National Editor Training (NET) workshops, our online
editorial workshops, and through our continuing feedback to their editorial commentary
throughout the reading season, we impress upon our editors the significance, the value,
the triumph, of every submission that we receive. We expect our editors to honor that.
We expect it. And yet, every day I am still surprised and delighted and heartened when
one of our editors says something like, “I am ready to fight for this poem.”
Or when I find something like this in the internal message box from one of our editors:
I’m not crazy about this one, but that’s not because I don’t like it. I enjoyed it the
way I enjoy eating scrambled eggs. They taste nice and they do the job, but most
of the time I’d rather have cake. Or a spicy burrito, or something. And maybe it’s
just me and that I’d rather get my teeth drilled than face bad line breaks, but the
line structuring here bugged me considerably. Especially because it’s supposed to
be in an older style. But, back to the egg analogy, which is horrid but I’ll stick to
it anyway, regardless of the fact that most people don’t go crazy for scrambled
eggs, the writer made some pretty darn good scrambled eggs. Great language,
and plus, the grammar’s good to go. Honestly, I’m pretty much neutral over its
acceptance, but I guess that typically means that other people reading it would
also feel pretty much neutral about it. Which isn’t the kind of feeling you want to
get from poetry.
That’s a response from a high school editor in California to the poem of a high school
student in New York. And it’s as care-filled and thoughtful a response as dozens that
come across my desk every day.
This magazine started with limited funding from a reluctant source who promised the
funding would be short-lived, and who warned me that “these things last for two or three
years and die when the funding is pulled.”
That was six volumes ago, three years after the funding was pulled. And though I wasn’t
quite sure what impact Polyphony HS would have when we started it, I cannot be
convinced that there’s a more important literary magazine in the world. And it’s as
important to the thousands of young writers who have submitted to us since 2004, as it is
to the hundreds of editors who have served on our staff in that same stretch of time.
Purchase a copy of Polyphony HS on your nightstand or your dresser or on the cabinet in
the dining room—somewhere you’ll see it every day. Read one story or essay a poem a
day and see what some of the young minds and hearts are doing with their occasions.
You’ll have read the issue cover to cover in less than three months. And when you’re
done with it, put it in the hands of a kid who writes or a kid who reads—a kid with
occasions. Or put it in the hands of a grownup—a writer or poet, maybe. Let her wonder
over it. Let him wish there was something like this around when she was a kid.