by Louise E. Wright
Stressed by the demands of a materialistic society? Disillusioned by the shallowness of day-to-day life? John Ebersole has the remedy: “Poetry,” he declares, “is a bulwark against the decadence, the soullessness of American culture.”
The recently appointed poetry editor of the “Philadelphia Review of Books,” an online magazine, continued: “Our culture is obsessed with utility. We believe that, if we collect enough shiny trinkets, everything is OK.” Poetry, however, asks that we engage “in deeper ways that threaten mass culture.”
Yet, if Ebersole presents a harsh view of American society, he has a high opinion of the American public and feels they deserve “a great poetry.” As poetry editor, he intends to give them that.
One of the challenges he faces is making poetry accessible to the general reader. Many individuals who read poetry today, according to Ebersole, are poets themselves. Products of M.F.A. programs, they have succeeded in creating an “insular” and “self-sustaining audience” for their work. At the same time, however, they have alienated a more general readership, one unable to relate to the abstractness and subjectivity of their verse. This situation has fostered “great debate” in what Ebersole refers to as “the poetry community.”
Insularity, however, is not the same as exclusivity. No longer the province of a particular class or gender, the genre has become “democratized.” Ebersole observes: “Anyone can write poetry; society is not antagonistic to that.” Furthermore, in the absence of objective criteria, it can accommodate as many styles as there are poets. Ultimately what matters is “individual taste.”
In selecting poems for the “Review,” Ebersole strives to achieve “a balance between what the audience would like to read” and his “own personal values.” He recognizes “a great diversity of aesthetic taste in Philadelphia” ranging “from the traditional to the avant-garde and everything in between.” In the few months he has served as editor, he has published four poets, whose work he described as “pretty accessible” to general readers.
With respect to his personal taste, Ebersole appreciates poetry that disabuses the notion of control. We live in a society, he explained, in which the pursuit of our own happiness is our highest goal. “Suffering is the ultimate interruption” of that pursuit, and we believe that “if we make the right decisions, we can control or even avoid suffering.” Dismissing that belief as “fantasy,” he declared: “I like poetry that’s fed up with that illusion.”
He also likes poetry that “makes me uncomfortably aware that I’m alive.” Not surprisingly, then, he finds inspiration for his own work in what he regards as a “conundrum of human experience: we’re stuck in these physical bodies that will one day decay and disappear, but simultaneously our internal lives are these vast galaxies of hope, fear and love.” Poetry results from the tension between the two; it is that “dynamic” that forces him to write.
Born and raised in Winter Park, Florida, Ebersole, 39, wrote his first poem in 10th grade. Although he’d written short stories since elementary school, he never thought to try his hand at poetry until a friend suggested he do so. “I took to it immediately,” he recalled. He described his early efforts as “pretty experimental exercises in language play” that lacked “definitive subject matter.”
After completing his undergraduate work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Ebersole earned his M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University. In 2007, he began teaching at Chestnut Hill College, where he also acts as director of the Writing Center. He enjoys teaching, which, he said, allows him “to defamiliarize the world for the students” and remind them that “their lives are phenomenal.”
Once established in the Philadelphia area, Ebersole, who lives in Erdenheim, was determined to contribute “to the city’s literary community in any way” he could. Meeting to discuss a piece he had written with Michael Buozis, editor of the “Review,” he indicated a willingness to help out with the publication. Buozis jumped at the offer and asked Ebersole to sign on as poetry editor.
Although the “Philadelphia Review of Books” showcases issues of local interest, the poetry component has already garnered national attention, publishing writers from around the country. Ebersole aims, therefore, to align the poetry more specifically with the city. With this goal in mind, he has contacted Frank Sherlock, newly appointed poet laureate of Philadelphia, hoping to involve him in some capacity.
Ebersole’s own poetry has appeared in the “Western Humanities Review” and “Octopus Magazine.” Currently he is working on his first volume of verse. Fascinated by “the visual world,” he aims to depict it through language. “There’s an oceanic feeling, a basic kinship or camaraderie, between the things of the world and ourselves,” he observed. In addition to writing, editing and teaching, Ebersole hosts the podcast “New Books in Poetry,” which can be accessed at newbooksinpoetry.com.
For the Philadelphia Review of Books, log onto philadelphiareviewofbooks.com.