Read an Interview with Srikanth Reddy, Editor of the Phoenix Poets Series
As we enter the relaunch of the Phoenix Poets series, we’re introducing the new editors and poets through a series of short interviews. Here, we spoke with the new editor, poet and literary scholar Srikanth Reddy, who is the first publicly named editor of the series since the 1990s. Reddy shares insights into his personal relationship with language, how he got started with the Phoenix Poets series, and what he’s excited about with the series moving forward.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to poetry?
I think maybe I came to poetry through an embarrassment about language and family. My parents immigrated to the US in the late 60s, from rural areas in the south of India where their own families had lived for countless generations. They were highly educated—physicians, like so many South Asian arrivals to the US in that period—but they never felt quite at home in the English language. I remember feeling acutely embarrassed by their misunderstandings and miscommunications with my teachers at school, or with people working at restaurants, or in any number of daily challenges they faced. I’m not proud of that embarrassment, but it was part of my childhood. So I think I became unusually, maybe excessively, attentive to language as I was growing up in the Chicago area in the 70s and 80s; I read a lot, and I found myself winning a lot of spelling bees in elementary school. And even though they sometimes struggled with the language, my parents spoke English exclusively with my sister and me in our home—because they worried that speaking their first language (Telugu) might interfere with our learning to speak English properly. I’ve never learned to speak Telugu with any fluency as a result. That vexed and complex relationship to language was probably at the heart of all the twists and turns that have brought me to poetry now.
Could you talk about your experience with the Phoenix Poets series, and what are you excited about for the future of the relaunched series?
As a poet who’s been teaching at the University of Chicago for nearly twenty years now, I’ve been reading many of the remarkable books published by the Phoenix Poets series at the Press since my arrival in 2003. I’d never really imagined being part of the work of the series; it always felt to me like an august literary tradition viewed with admiration from across the campus Midway. So when Alan Thomas invited me to talk about Phoenix Poets over coffee a few years ago, I was happy to offer some ideas—but I didn’t imagine those conversations would lead to our relaunch of Phoenix Poets in 2023. It’s been a lot of fun to dream up new initiatives, like the Phoenix Emerging Poets Book Prize, our open submissions reading period, and incorporating poetry in translation into the series, that will bring exciting new voices into contemporary literature. And personally, it’s been rewarding to read and think about poetry with our new Consulting Editors—Doug, Katie, and Rosa—who expand my sense of the art every time we meet to talk about manuscripts together. Most of all, I’m excited by the poets we discover whenever we dive into the pool of submissions to the series; I hadn’t known how much dynamic, challenging, and deeply moving work was out there in the world just waiting for readers.
What are some things you look for when selecting books for the series? Are there qualities, styles, or subjects that you’re especially drawn to?
I try not to bring any fixed criteria to reading manuscripts for Phoenix Poets—that way lies madness! But I find that reading begins to feel more like listening as I move through the hundreds of submissions we receive. If there’s a distinctive tone of voice, or a musicality to certain passages that I haven’t heard before, then I perk up and lean in to listen more closely. That voice may be speaking about anything under the sun, but if it sounds and feels like a new kind of identity to me, that’s when the work usually opens new horizons in terms of content or style on further reading. I think you see this in our first season’s titles by Annelyse Gelman, whose book is deeply informed by a musical composition by Erik Satie, and Dong Li, whose book is ‘spoken’ by a literary narrator whose first language isn’t English. Both of these books make a new sound in the listening room of contemporary American poetry.
The relaunched series includes the “Phoenix Emerging Poet Book Prize” for a poet who has previously published no more than two books of poetry. Could you talk about why this sort of emerging poet opportunity is important to you?
Some poets reimagine what the art form means to them with every book they write. But there’s something exhilarating about watching a poet discover a distinctive voice for themselves at the beginning of their life as a writer. Publishing emerging authors through the Phoenix Emerging Poet Book Prize holds open that excitement and sense of discovery in contemporary American poetry. New writers may make us aware of ancient forms, overlooked vernaculars, or emerging futures. They expand the horizon of possibility for literary expression; and that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do with the relaunch of Phoenix Poets today.
The relaunched series now includes poetry in translation. Could you talk about the importance of publishing translated works in the series?
Opening our doors to poetry in translation will, I hope, open a new dimension to the work of the series. I’m especially eager to publish books by poets from non-Western cultural backgrounds, including African, Asian, Latin American, and Indigenous writers who expand the field of global intimacies that poetry in translation affords. In a sense, all poetry is rooted in a deep history of translation; if you’re writing sonnets in English, you’re working in a form that crossed over into this language from the Italian literary tradition. So highlighting poetry in translation is one way of making visible the importance of translation to literary arts writ large. One of our first season’s authors, Dong Li, is an accomplished literary translator in his own right; his book, The Orange Tree, is about the problem of translating oneself into a new culture, and into a new life, even if it’s not technically a book of translation per se. Translators are the unacknowledged legislators of the literary world.