Interview conducted by Stevie Edwards
Elaina Ellis began as an unpaid intern at Copper Canyon in 2012 and has risen in ranks to becoming an editor there. Copper Canyon has long been one of the most respected American poetry presses. Their offerings over the past few years have been increasingly diverse, tender, and voice-driven. Given that America has been becoming more and more unsafe for people of color, women, GLBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized populations, there is something very necessary about the voices of dissent and witness that Copper Canyon has been putting into the world. Ocean Vuong, Natalie Diaz, Rachel McKibbens, Traci Brimhall, Jericho Brown, Camille Rankine, Javier Zamora—these are just a few of the vibrant additions to the Copper Canyon catalogue that I am grateful to be able to read.
Elaina Ellis is a relatively young editor with an MFA from Antioch and a first book, Write About an Empty Bird Cage, published by Write Bloody Publishing in 2011. I have had a poetry editor crush on Ellis for several years now. I first became aware of Elaina Ellis through her poetry; we both had our first books published through Write Bloody around the same time, and in 2011 she had a wonderful poem (“Advice for the Newly Single”) appear in a literary magazine I run, Muzzle Magazine. Reading Ellis’s poems—which are deeply felt, urgent, and rich in music— it’s no surprise that her addition to the editorial staff at Copper Canyon would align with so many exciting new authors joining the press.
Stevie Edwards: I am sure that a lot of young poets would see working for Copper Canyon as a bit of a dream job. Can you talk about your path toward becoming an editor there?
Elaina Ellis: Of course. My role has evolved over time, and each incarnation has been a different kind of dream job for me. I started as an intern in 2012, an unpaid gig I applied for when I’d reached the point of self-employment burnout. I was coming out of a fantastically creative time—I’d just put up an original libretto called Poetry Apocalypse with the Seattle Rock Orchestra—but the stress of piecing money and vision together from month to month was getting to me. I had never worked in publishing prior to Copper Canyon, but the skills I brought from other experiences made me a good fit for the press: running my own small business and all of the scrappy strategizing that goes into that, producing poetry events, community organizing, fundraising, an MFA in creative writing, and being a voracious reader. And the press was, and is, a good fit for me too. There’s a culture of kindness, flexibility, and collaboration that has kept me interested and engaged these past 5+ years.
My first paid role at Copper Canyon Press was Community Engagement Coordinator. I’ve long loved bringing people to poetry and poetry to people, and the press had a rich history of public events, so together we came up with a position to support that kind of outreach. Simultaneously, we had launched a new online submissions system and the editorial department needed help managing it—so I added another title to my business card, Associate Editor. As the organization has grown (and I’ve grown along with it) I’ve taken on different editorial and curatorial responsibilities. My title has been slimmed down to one word, Editor.
SE: What is something that has surprised you about working professionally as a poetry editor?
EE: One of the perpetually surprising things about working as a poetry editor is that it’s such weird work. Beautiful and deliciously weird work!
Did you ever read the book Bee Season by Myla Goldberg? The novel’s young heroine wins spelling bees by becoming a tiny Jewish mystic. The kid is an unlikely channel—she’s not even a good student. But she starts pulling spellings out of the air by receiving the shape and energies of letters. I might regret how this ends up sounding, but sometimes when editing is going well, it feels like that.
I’m no mystic genius or spelling bee champion, but I love Bee Season because it shows how language exceeds itself, precedes itself, is there for the deeper knowing. When I’m getting something right as an editor I’m drawing from that extra-place. I’ve long recognized this about writing poetry, and reading it: to really show up to a poem, there’s both an invitation and a requirement to enter into a space outside of (or deeply inside) pedestrian logic and traffic signals. Maybe I thought that serious editorial work would be more cerebral than intuitive, and of course it’s both. It’s about being a good listener, whether I’m reading for acquisitions, or describing a book, or working on developmental edits—it’s about listening to the author’s words but also the whole constellation of associations, sounds, activities, histories, and possible futures hanging out in there. I love that I get to share this strange work with my colleagues, day after day.
SE: Copper Canyon has open reading periods about twice a year. What are things you look for in choosing new authors? Also, is there anything that you feel like you see too much of?
EE: I read for acquisitions alongside Assistant Editor Rio Cortez, who now manages our open reading periods, our team of interns and volunteer readers, my colleagues across departments who are always welcome to dip into the queue and make their opinions heard, and Editor in Chief Michael Wiegers who makes final decisions on which books we publish in any given season. We all look for different things in a manuscript, and as unhelpful as this might be for submitting poets, it’s more about a resounding and shared yes from the team than it is about a list of desired qualities. For example, Rio pulled a manuscript she loved from the Submittable queue by Keith S. Wilson, and sent it along with a brief note about the strength of the work. Within hours, Michael and I had taken a look at the manuscript—I remember stealing time with Keith’s poems while muted on a conference call—and we both wrote back with our enthusiasm in all-caps. I felt surprised by the work, its quiet power, the aching romance of it, the steady pulse of it, and I also felt surprised by my own unambiguous yes-response to it. And now Keith’s beautiful debut book is forthcoming in 2019.
In terms of what we see too much of, there’s no formula there either. Sometimes we simply see too much work from an individual poet—our pace as publishers is slow and steady, and we can’t keep up with a poet who’s submitting several manuscripts at once and expecting instant gratification. There’s nothing wrong with being prolific, but sometimes it’s a mismatch with our preference for painstaking quality over quantity. Beyond that, we each have our turnoffs and biases, which is another reason why we work as a team. That said—while I have the opportunity I should say that perceived misogyny, racism, and other forms of cultural violence or cluelessness can get a manuscript marked “NO” in a hurry.
SE: In terms of aesthetics, how do you see Copper Canyon situated in relationship to other poetry presses right now?
EE: As poet Kaveh Akbar has recently trumpeted, we are living in a golden age of poetry. I’m proud of the fantastic books that Copper Canyon Press is publishing, and I’m equally proud to be shoulder to shoulder with other poetry presses and independent publishers doing incredible work. At Copper Canyon we don’t have a narrow focus in terms of who or what makes a book a good fit for our list. We’re constantly adjusting our mix of debut poets, master poets who are writing late in life, translations, midcareer innovators, longtime Copper Canyon authors, new-to-us authors. Some books feel timely and urgent (Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied, a source of fierce testimony amidst ongoing threats to undocumented people and their families, for example), while others relate differently to time, echoing or connecting distant past to future. That openness keeps us on our toes, and keeps us talking, and keeps us new. Our mission has us promising to publish extraordinary poetry, which of course is subjective, and broad as the sky.
SE: If you had to describe the Copper Canyon aesthetic in one word, what would it be?
SE: How do you find balance between being an editor and being a writer?
EE: For the first several years I found no such balance—I was reading 1200 manuscripts/year and had a hard time hearing my own voice above the static of the others. It helped to carve out dedicated spaces, like weeklong retreats, where I was regarded as a poet and not as a publishing professional. Now that I can hear myself again, I’m finding that the creative energy it takes to edit someone else’s work and the creative energy it takes to write are not at odds, they can feed each other. So the new challenge for me is revision: how can I bring the same care and patience and curiosity I bring to someone else’s page to my own?
SE: What was the last poem you read that stuck with you for days?
EE: Oh goodness. So many. I just read all of our 2019 manuscripts in one gulp—a bit of time-travel into future books—and am particularly haunted by Deborah Landau’s new work, which gets at the vulnerability of being human in an age of terror. I have been carrying around an early copy of Jenny George’s gorgeous The Dream of Reason which is coming out this spring, and her poem that’s currently sticking to me is called “Reprieve” and includes these lines: “I’ve exhausted my cruelty. / I’ve arrived at myself again. / The sun builds a slow house inside my house.” And outside of Copper Canyon Press, some poems I’ve been dizzyingly grateful for lately include Chen Chen’s spectacularly queer love poem “Winter,” which I wrote out by hand and framed for a place of honor in my bathroom, Solmaz Sharif’s “Beauty,” which gives me a pang of recognition every time I clean out the kitchen sink, and Angel Nafis’s “Woo Woo Roll Deep” which is a poem that loves: loves itself, loves its people, loves its miracles, helps me love mine.