poetry journals

14 posts

When Rejection Really Isn’t Rejection

trash

Why so quick to take it personally? Rejection of your writing doesn’t always mean the writing is not good. It can mean a few other things, too. Things you’d never think of because you’re not running a poetry journal (which requires a different sort of thinking).

A few weeks back I made a submission to a poetry journal in Europe. It was posted in Submittable with a deadline a MONTH OUT. I received a “rejection” the very next day, with the editor claiming they had been swamped with submissions and already had enough work to publish their journal.

I wrote back, which is not like me because I know better. Something to this effect: “Well, sir, as your posting is four weeks out, why don’t you have the decency to contact Submittable and have them yank it to save other writers the futile exercise of putting a submission together, executing the submission, and updating their writing records?”

The response to this wild and crazy idea sounded like this:  *** Crickets ***

Then I got the real answer yesterday — an email from this very same European poetry magazine. It was sponsoring a special introductory subscription offer of 40% off, featuring some of the very best poetry in the world (just not yours)!

Suddenly it dawned on me. The rising sun sounded like this:  *** Duh! ***

They were not in Submittable for poetry submissions, they were in it to build a poetry-readers subscription base.

And here we have writers constantly taking rejections personally. Look how creative some editors can be! And others may be rejecting your work not because it is bad, but because it’s good but not to their taste. Or because it doesn’t fit with the other works they’ve already accepted. Or because it’s free verse when they fancy form poems (or form poems when they fancy free verse).

Sure, sometimes rose is a rose is a rose and rejection is a rejection is a rejection, but buck up! Your entry might be accepted to a mailing list saving you 40%!

BTW, the response to this introductory offer sounded like this: *** Move to Trash ***

Go Deep! Go Wild!

Deep Wild

If you’re a FB person, I invite you to visit Deep Wild Journal’s Facebook Page, where they featured my poem “Thoreau Knows” yesterday to commemorate Henry David’s 203rd birthday.

The poem will appear in the print journal, Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry, the 2020 issue, which is scheduled to be released any day now. As I say of any journal that publishes my work, buy! I put my faith where faith is put!

So go ahead, FB types. Do some good for the little guy (Deep Wild Journal). Read their FB page. Endorse it. Then read it and, if you’re a writer and a lover of nature, submit to it for its next issue.

“We Are Small as Moth Wing Fall”

antelope

Yesterday our family blog lost its license by posting a 5-line poem that exploded four f-bombs, Mary Ruefle’s “Red.” As we no longer have the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (I ran out of fish), I might as well go for it and share another f-balmy poem from Poetry, which was on an f’in run in its May issue.

This one uses the forward slash to separate would-be lines, a technique you, young poet, might consider for your increasingly messy (a good thing) toolbox. Ready, then? Fasten your seat belts!

 

Fuck / Time
Inua Ellams

Once upon a time / Yo-Yo Ma / traveling through Botswana searching for
music / crosses a local shaman singing / into the savannah / He rushes to
notate the melody / Please Sing Again he requests / to which the shaman
sings something else and explains / to the baffled Yo-Yo Ma that earlier /
clouds had covered the sun and wild antelope grazed in the distance / But
the dial of the world had twirled since / The antelopes had cantered into
some other future / The clouds had gone / so the song had to change / had to
slough off the chains us mortals clasp everything with / even our fluid wrists
/ The universe in fact is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man /
We are small as moth wing fall / in an orchestra broad as galaxies / playing
a symphony Time isn’t bothered to fathom / It respects no constant and is
always moving on

 

Note how no punctuation is used, though capitalization is utilized to signal sentence beginnings. Also, the forward slash is employed twice as a line ending and, curiously, once as a line beginning. The best explanation, from a distant vista, is the shape of the poem, which wants to be as rectangular as possible.

What I like best about the poem is the middle, how a song cannot be repeated because the physical world it was sung to has since changed. Thus, new songs must be sung. It’s how a shaman would think, diametrically opposed to the way an average Westerner would (though Yo-Yo Ma is neither average nor Westerner).

Having written a poetry collection called The Indifferent World, I also like the cameo of the word “indifferent,” as in “The universe in fact is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man.”

Can I get an “amen” to that?

My one quibble is that the strong center yields a milder finish. But hey, the poem’s creative, it uses a different technique, and it sticks to Poetry‘s May Theme in a Key of  F-Major.

All good, in other words / Have a ruby Tuesday

 

A Sure Sign That Your Poems Might Suck

ordgen

Kim Addonizio’s book Ordinary Genius came out 11 years ago, so the statistics I’m about to cite about poetry readership are dated. The greater point remains valid, however. Let’s dive in ipso fasto and meet around the excerpt, shall we?

 

“Books of poetry will teach you more than your mentor or professor or the well-known poet you have traveled to a conference to work with. Reading is like food to a writer; without it, the writer part of you will die—or become spindly and stunted. If you’re afraid that reading will make you less original, don’t be. Falling under the spell of—or reacting against—other writers is part of what will lead you to your own work. Reading in the long tradition of poetry shows you what has lasted, and those poems are there to learn from. Reading your contemporaries shows you what everyone else is up to in your own time, so you can map the different directions of the art. There’s never one route to poetry, one style. Reading widely will help you see this.

“Here is a sobering statistic: Poetry, which has been for many years one of the premier poetry journals in America, has about ten thousand subscribers. Every year, it receives ten times that many submissions from writers hoping to land a poem on its pages.

“That’s a hundred thousand people, writing.

“Are they reading? Possibly. Maybe they’re not subscribing to Poetry because they’re spending their money on books by Neruda and Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser and Derek Walcott. But in fact, a large number of people who want to write poetry don’t seem to like to read it. Many journals have a circulation of a few hundred copies, and poetry books sell dismally compared to fiction or memoir: the first print run is usually one or two thousand copies.

“Maybe you’re one of those people who writes poems, but rarely reads them. Let me put this as delicately as I can: If you don’t read, your writing is going to suck.”

 

I love it when people get delicate, don’t you? Kind of like Mom and Dad when you were a kid growing up. Or certainly your siblings. Direct and to the point.

What’s worth gleaning here is this: Although she runs workshops herself, Addonizio is convinced that immersing yourself in the reading of poetry is the best training a wannabe poet can get, period. And yet the statistics seem to show that something else is afoot. Lots of writing, but nowhere near as much reading.

Certainly there’s a marked reluctance to plunking one’s money down for a poetry book or journal. This is surprising, considering the number of poetry practitioners is legion. Why do you think you wait six, nine, twelve months for a response from poetry editors? The transom looks like L.A.’s highway system, that’s why, while the poetry-reading traffic resembles rush hour in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

What’s wrong with this picture? Addonizio would say, “Where to begin….” She finishes her chapter on reading with this flourish:

 

“I can’t stress this point enough: You need to soak up as many books as you can. Even the ones you don’t like can teach you something. If you were a painter, you’d spend time looking at works of art from every period in history. A chef I know, whenever he travels, eats enough for three people—he wants to sample all the dishes. Boxers study the great fights of the past, like the Ali-Forman “Thrilla in Manila.” Marketers look at the successes of past products to try to duplicate those successes. Poetry isn’t a product in that way, but you see what I mean. Read. Imitate shamelessly. Steal when you can get away with it. T. S. Eliot said, ‘Good poets imitate. Great poets steal.’

“So read. Let other writers teach and inspire you.

“Unless you really want your writing to suck.”

 

Time to look in the mirror, poets. What’s your writing / reading ratio? How much time do you spend reading, rereading, copying out, and memorizing poems (all practices Addonizio professes to practice as a successful poet)?

And what about your sense of history? Are you all about contemporary poets only (or even mostly)? Do the words “John Keats” send ripples of fear through your very being?

There’s no time like now to start changing all that. Especially if you’re “hunkering down,” a folksy expression for being cooped up by a pandemic.

What Are Poets Writing About?

kimaddonizio

OK, I get it. Asking what today’s poets are writing about is a stupid question. They are writing about whatever they want to write about.

Even amending the question helps but little: What are poets who are getting published writing about?

There is no way one can gain accuracy via a random sample. They’re all too…random. That said, randomness can provide some indications, anyway. And count me curious (thus, this post), because I’ve often noted a chasm between some of my favorite topics and what poetry editors seem to like best these days.

Put it this way. If I were a contestant on Jeopardy!, I wouldn’t fare so well on popular culture topics, and I suspect modern poetry loves popular culture more than I do.

For my sample, then, I turned to the most recent issue of Rattle, a popular poetry magazine that features “approachable” poetry. Better yet, the Spring 2020 issue features a special section dedicated to students of the poet-teacher Kim Addonizio (pictured above). It’s called “Tribute to Kim Addonizio & Her Students.”

(And can we interrupt this broadcast to say just how much better these poet-students’ odds for publication became thanks to this oh-so-specific condition? I mean, c’mon. I’ve written Editor Tim Green about having a special section for former 4th-grade students of Mrs. Ann Wilcox in Cowtown, Connecticut, in some future issue. Instead of competing against… basically everybody… I’d need only best a handful of historic writer sorts who traveled through Mrs. W’s storied classroom!)

But where were we? Ah, yes. A list of topics chosen by the 17 Addonizio-trained poets. As noted, it’s a doubly good sample because a.) they were trained by a top name, contemporary poet, and b.) their work was selected by editors of a paying poetry market (“paying” and “poetry market” being such strange bedfellows these days).

Care to play along? Let’s see how you do as I see how I do! Are their topics similar in many ways to yours? Or are you writing just a few too many poems about the Reformation in 16th-century Germany?

Accepted and published poem is loosely about…

  • a woman after her lover has left her
  • a narrator with a girl in the neighboring seat who is now sleeping on her shoulder during a long airplane flight
  • a dying man’s plan to paint vistas of deserts and mountains in his final weeks, months
  • a pair of lovers staying at a romantic place by the sea
  • someone’s updates on their neighbor, a man who unsuccessfully tried to hang himself two months back
  • a series of metaphors comparing a sermon to the neighborhood
  • a narrator who likes to talk about sex and think about turning into a wild animal
  • Penn Station as life: the board, a homeless person, commuters, movement
  • ruminations on love and life as a formerly-married, now single middle-aged sort
  • a quirky look at society post-Election Day (of gee, I wonder who?)
  • lovers sailing near the equator where they dive and photo-shoot creatures of the sea
  • Kafka’s Gregor Samsa reimagined in modern times interfacing with Twitter, tow trucks, protesters, police officers, and (God save us) Starbucks coffee
  • someone’s 16-year-old cat at the veterinarian’s, along with other animals and owners in the waiting room of angst
  • a woman entering a bar, sizing up a man, and deciding “Hell, yeah!”
  • a fraught mom comparing her infant son (cuddly) with the 5-year-old he has become (not so cuddly)
  • a couple in a house of many windows, observed by outsiders but observing themselves as well, concluding that living = being seen

 

I’m not sure how the “popular culture test” works here. Maybe this: Could these poems be developed into reality TV pilots that people would watch? Well, there’s sex, love, despair, death, travel, politics, social networks, coffee baristas, pets, mothers-and-children, alcohol, and, of course, self.

The stuff of traditional poets like, say, Frost? Not so much, really. The topics seem to be more immediate, contemporary, familiar. Ideas that could easily segue into features for popular magazines.

Can we learn from this? Perhaps. It seems the overall notion of sharing your life more openly—a prerequisite of life online— is a good thing, at least for poets aiming to get published.

In that sense, poetry is a reflection of our times, where folks upload not only pictures of their cats, but pictures of what they are eating for dinner, where (jealousy alert!) they are traveling, and (wait for it!) themselves via the now-hackneyed selfie.

Popular culture, then. Out of the confessional box and into open air. Only poetically. Then submit and like your odds a bit more!

Who WAS That Masked Poet?

zorro

Poetry journals that read work anonymously are a distinct minority. The $23,496 question is: Why?

Shouldn’t all editors read work anonymously? Shouldn’t all poems be read and judged on their own merits vs. the merits of a well-known (or well-connected) name that might offer a journal some cachet?

An anecdote I’ve shared in the past bears repeating here. I have subscribed to Poetry magazine for a few years now. In the back, where a list of contributors is found, the editors place an asterisk to denote a first-time appearance in the august (Latin for “top-paying”) magazine.

No doubt the purpose is to prove how diverse the editorial selections are, but for me the asterisks lead to quite different conclusions (and a very different reindeer game). I read each poem in the issue, one at a time, and then guess whether its author is a Poetry newbie (asterisk) or a Poetry veteran (no asterisk).

Granted, the game doesn’t work in the case of very well-known poets like, say, Rae Armantrout, Christian Wiman, or Mary Jo Bang, so let’s throw those and those like them out of the pool. Other than that, though, I seem to have developed a sixth sense about “newbies vs. veterans” based on how much I enjoyed the poem.

You guessed it. If I find a poem stronger, I guess “newbie” and flip back to find, 9 times out of 10, an asterisk (bingo!). And if I  find the poem a tad tortured or lame or smelling of the academic oil, I guess “veteran,” flip back again and, more often than not, see no asterisk (score!).

My conclusion? Newbies have to be stronger to gain admission at the august gate, whereas veterans can be slightly weaker because, well, their names push them across the finish line. As for the established poets, they sometimes don’t work as hard (or perhaps experiment more) because they can.

Don’t misunderstand me. I fully realize that talented poets would continue to have success in publishing their work even if an anonymous-only policy was adopted by the industry as a whole—just not as much success.

Image with me, then, that Poetry and all the majority of other journals adopted this “look at the poems, not the names” policy. Some of these “iffy” poems by established poets might earn boiler-plate rejections (a throwback of sorts for them, which might actually be healthy), leaving more bandwidth for new blood—up and coming poets who’ve been working the mines to good effect.

To me, that’s reason enough. But for now, all I can do is vote with my submissions by sending as much new work as possible to journals that have adopted the anonymous method of reading.

John and Jane Doe? Are you in this with me?

 

Growing Reading Fees Cause for Concern

costs

Submittable has a filter called “No Fee” but, for whatever reason, using it does not totally eliminate journals levying fees. And lately, there has been increasing cause for worry on the reading-fee front.

It used to be fairly standard that reading fees would be either $2 or, more typically, $3. I wrote about this in greater depth in a 2018 blog entry based on a Poets & Writers article. This piece detailed the profits a poetry journal stood to make at such rates.

Before I go on, let’s review a key paragraph from that entry. It uses an interview with Alaska Quarterly Review editor Ronald Spatz to help illustrate where the money goes:

Submittable charges magazines an annual subscription fee, then takes a cut of the proceeds when writers pony up for a hearing. Let’s stick with the AQR example: “Those administrative fees can add up to a small but attractive revenue stream for perennially cash-strapped literary magazines. At AQR, Spatz paid $757 for the journal’s annual Submittable subscription and retained $1.86 of each $3 payment from writers using the system, with the remainder going back to Submittable.  With 1,190 submissions, the revenue from fees more than paid for the journal’s Submittable subscription in just the one month submissions were open. Had AQR kept the online portal open for a full year, Spatz says, ‘we would be getting lots of revenue, which we need, but the thing is, that would be unethical [because the journal doesn’t have the staff to handle the added submissions].’”

(If you’re interested, here’s a link to the entire blog entry.)

Yesterday I experimented on Submittable by eliminating the “No Fee” filter entirely to see what kind of numbers would pop up and how much they had changed since 2018. Turns out, they’ve changed quite a bit.

It seems that the standard $2 to $3 rate is becoming less standard. In many cases, poets will now see rates of $4, $5, and even more. There are also nickel-and-dime variations such as $4.20, $4.50, and $4.97 (all together now: “Huh?”).

This is a worrisome development, considering that journals make over 50% profit on each fee Submittable collects from a writer. Note in the excerpt I provided above how Alaska Quarterly Review editor Ronald Spatz admits that opening their one-month submission window from a single month to an entire year “would be getting lots of revenue,” which AQR (and every literary journal) needs, but that it would also be “unethical” because the journal’s resources would not be capable of handling the flood of submissions they would receive.

What I saw yesterday in my unfiltered markets search was concerning in multiple ways. For one, what if a particular journal is not quite as ethical as most because the money flow is too sweet to pass up? I mean, rejecting submissions is just too easy. Are there safeguards against this?

And what of these new developments that prey on eager writers who often endure six months to a year of waiting for responses, making them particularly vulnerable? Now we’re seeing journals that are offer “quick responses” within a week, a few days, or even 24 hours. This, of course, for a higher fee.

For instance, I saw one asking for $10 in exchange for a response within a week. Again, this is all too easy to do with a boilerplate rejection note and jumps the journal’s profits (not to mention Submittable’s) handsomely.

Also on the uptick is pay-for-feedback. Prices for feedback go even higher, but there are no guarantees on either the amount of feedback or the quality of the feedback. And again, if the journal’s resources are sorely tested by the transom (and most are), wouldn’t it follow logically that the feedback, in many cases, would be brief, generic, and/or of a cut-and-paste variety, given that similar critiques can often be used for many poets?

It would, I think, which is why I advise writers to be more wary than ever about the mounting costs of their impatience. Stick with reputable fee-based journals that you trust or, better yet, avoid fee-based markets altogether.

Why? Because the quantitative costs of entry fees, contest fees, rapid-response fees, and feedback fees can lead wannabe writers (especially newer writers still heavy on the “wannabe” part) to financial ruin. In a hurry. And that’s just not right, even in these times when “right” is decidedly out of fashion.

About That Darkness Before Dawn…

dawn

As a follow-up to yesterday, here’s one more interesting poem from the Feb. issue of Poetry. Maybe I like it because it’s not everything-is-beautiful á la William Wordsworth. Maybe I like it because everything is decidedly not beautiful in 2020.

In that sense, poet Maggie Smith has it right. She pulls no punches. She acknowledges no sacred cows. Hell, she’s even willing to step into the ring against light. That’s like taking on family, bluebirds, and apple pie all at once.

But, hey. Someone has to write these counter-poems. Dark will have its day (and I don’t mean the night) and, in fact, is having its day in world events right now. Behold:

 

How Dark the Beginning
Maggie Smith

All we ever talk of is light—
let there be light, there was light then,

good light—but what I consider
dawn is darker than all that.

So many hours between the day
receding and what we recognize

as morning, the sun cresting
like a wave that won’t break

over us—as if light were protective,
as if no hearts were flayed,

no bodies broken on a day
like today. In any film,

the sunrise tells us everything
will be all right. Danger wouldn’t

dare show up now, dragging
its shadow across the screen.

We talk so much of light, please
let me speak on behalf

of the good dark. Let us
talk more of how dark

the beginning of a day is.

 

I guess the poem’s value depends on the lens you view it through. I have no idea if Smith meant this literally and literally only, but many readers (including this one) can see light vs. dark in a figurative sense as well.

Thus, one of my favorite lines from the Bible: “Through a glass darkly.” These days, I see a lot in this world “through a glass darkly” because a lot of things are sinister in a déjà vu, 1930s kind of way.

Of course, you can put your head in the sand and avoid all that, brightening up your own life, but then you stand accused of contributing to the dark forces by removing your own resistance from various causes for good.

For me, then, Smith’s poem speaks to things that have crawled out of dark sewers into the light of day. They are the new normal, and they are decidedly encouraged by each other and by their new freedom to operate in the light of day.

That may be far from Smith’s intent, but the reader-writer compact tells us that both have equal roles, as long as within reason.

Reasonably yours,
Me

Writer / Readers Can Reject Journals, Too

reject

For writers, rejections sting, but let’s think about it. As readers, writers are in the position to reject as well.

Writers often get rejections from editors that read something like this:”We are sorry we are not accepting your work as it is not a good fit for our journal. This is by no means a judgment of your work, however, and we wish you well in placing it elsewhere.”

We know from research that the reader-writer transaction is an equal one. Readers need writers. Writers need readers.

And so it is that readers who subscribe to journals have an equal right to say goodbye to a subscription—not because the journal’s content is bad or even suspect, but simply because the reader doesn’t feel his or her tastes are a match with the editor’s selections.

That said, there is one way readers and writers are not equal. Readers are not necessarily writers, but writers are necessarily readers. Call them writer / readers, a substantial part of every magazine’s subscription rolls.

To complete the logic, then, writer / readers who subscribe to literary magazines might find themselves not renewing (the equivalent of rejecting) a journal by saying, in so many words, “I am sorry I cannot read your journal any more as much of the work you print is not a good fit with my tastes. This is by no means a judgment of your journal, however, and I wish you well in selling subscriptions to others.”

Of course, editors don’t get that message unless a lot of subscribers sign off. Still, for writer / readers, the message is empowering. Rejection, fairly done, is a two-way street. And just as the sun will rise in the east, there are other literary magazines with editorial decisions more closely aligned with your tastes.

All this came to mind as I decided, after two years, that I don’t really enjoy the poetry journal I’ve been receiving in the mail. Yes, I’ve submitted work to them, but it really made no sense to do so.

After all, if I don’t care for the editorial team’s tastes as a reader, what makes me think they will care for my poetry as a writer?

I know, I know. Writers aren’t the most logical of creatures. They can even get delusional at times. But give us the benefit of the doubt. We’ll think it through and eventually come to our senses—as writers and readers both.

 

Why Do You Write? Seven Reasons

7

It was good to receive the holiday Poets & Writers “Inspiration Issue,” which includes inspiring interviews with seven established poets, none of whom look anything like me (instead, I sadly look like the Powers-That-Be I loathe in Washington Swamp. C., making me feel like an Ugly Duckling on the Good Pond Poetry, one who can only evolve in one way—talent).

Although there are many cool questions with cooler-still answers in these interviews, I’ll give you a sampling by sharing responses to the eternal question: “Why do you write?”

Sally Wen Mao: “I write in order to live; to be sane in this world; to expand my own ideas of what’s possible; for the girl inside me who did not believe she was valuable; for the woman inside me who trivializes her own pain; for all the living people, especially women of color, who feel the same way; to rail against silence and erasure; to center my own narrative; to recover history; to imagine a future; to record and witness the present; to tell the truth.”

Editor’s Note: This reminds me of essay tests I took in U.S. History senior year. When I wasn’t quite sure which answer was best, I put some semicolons to work and gave them all! Still, I’m pretty sure Sally’s answer speaks for many in today’s swampy climate (allusion to Washington Swamp C. and its head crocodile here).

Hanif Abdurraqib: (Hanif did not answer this specific question, so I’ll share his answer to “Who do you turn to when you feel like you’re losing faith?“): “I’m finding faith in writers who at least attempt to engage with a complicated honesty. I’m into writers who ask and answer with confidence, fully understanding that none of us really know shit.”

Editor’s Note: I love that answer, because Hanif fully understands what none of us fully understands. That can’t be said of some of the self-important writers out there, now can it?

Morgan Parker: “To explain myself.”

Editor’s Note: Boy, would E. B. White and his teacher, Mr. Strunk, love this succinct answer! Well done, Morgan!

Esmé Weijun Wang: “It’s the best way I’ve found to interpret the bewildering world.”

Editor’s Note: “Second place in the succinct sweepstakes!”

Ross Gay: “I write because I have questions; because I love books; I love the human voice; others have been so kind as to have written things I have been moved by and feel compelled to talk with; I like to talk with; I like to move; it is so fun; semicolons; the mysteries.”

Editor’s Note: Ross appears to be in on Semicolon Humor (it was once an ice cream franchise, no?). He’s also in on something I read about somewhere, but forget where: All writing is a dialogue with all writings that came before it. It’s as if we’re all at a big table with the masters, jockeying for seats near our favorites (I’m between Twain and Tolstoy), politely saying, “Pass the Plato of potatoes, please.”

Yiyun Li: “I would feel awfully lonely if I stopped.”

Editor’s Note: This sentiment makes sense when you receive occasional acceptances in your inbox. For the forever-rejected writers, however, their loneliness lives on, even as they continue to write. (As Head Swamp Crocodile once tweeted: “Sad!”)

Chigozie Obioma: “I write to redeem myself from the intrinsic pain that comes from trying to unravel the mystery of existence and, by doing so, to help others unpack theirs.”

Editor’s Note: I never considered that the mysteries of existence might be something in my Samsonite between socks and underwear, but it’s a rather cool image! Be careful with that luggage, kind sir!

And so, gentle reader, in seven semicolons or less, why do you write?