poetry journals

5 posts

The Pandemic Strikes Publishing, Too


A pandemic wreaks havoc in both obvious and less obvious ways. The obvious ways appear, depressingly enough, on the homepages of our online newspapers and as “breaking news” on our televisions. Less obvious are the effects of being holed up at home, especially if you’re an extrovert or someone in a bad marriage or a kid who relies on schools for breakfast and lunch.

Less obvious than these less obvious items? Covid-19’s effects on publishing. This past week brought two interesting emails to my inbox. One was from a print magazine publisher that had already accepted one of my poems. They said the printing press that usually brought out their publication was not considered “essential,” therefore the magazine would not appear as scheduled. Instead, the editors were working on their first electronic version of the magazine ever.

Be patient, was their bottom line. And pray for us, because we’ve never done this before. I did not reply but my subconscious did: “Uh-oh.”

Another email came from a journal still entertaining a poetry submission I’d sent. They apologized (as if they had to, given the circumstances!) and said the whole pandemic thing had sent their efforts into disarray and that everything would be backed up, with the chance that said “everything” might even be backed up over a cliff like Wiley E. Coyote or something, so don’t expect to hear back from them soon, or at least as soon as they had promised.

Oh. OK.

So if you’re noticing little action on your Submittable page, now you know why. Granted, “action” is a misnomer when it comes to submitting to poetry journals because things move like sludge even in the best of times, but this is sludge in a stubborn mood we’re talking now!

I imagine this chaos extends to book publishing, too. My third manuscript, already seatbelted in and preparing for takeoff next week, is in for a long ride. Perhaps it will see Jupiter outside the window before I hear anything about its fate, good or bad. I’m packing extra sandwiches for the 57 poems, just in case.

Go ahead. Call me a helicopter author. But these are strange times, and all the old rules are going out the window. Like everything else, the publishing industry is either sick or in hiding.

Publishing Preference: Online or Print?


When it comes to seeking markets for your work, you can be an omnivore who treats print publications and online ones equally or you can get fussy about your diet. There are advantages to each, of course, but lately I’ve surprised myself by drifting in an unexpected direction. Just don’t call me the publishing version of a militant vegan, is all.

Print journals are classic, traditional, and old-school—three adjectives I rather admire. As a writer, I like the appeal of print much in the same way I like print books in my hands as a reader. Kindles and computer-reading have their places, like on a plane or a trip where carrying books is inconvenient, but me, I like the heft and feel of a genuine book in my palms, not to mention the smell of paper and ink.

For the vast majority of literary journals, payment comes in the form of (wait for it!) the literary journal itself. The routine goes like this: You receive the journal in the mailbox, at first wonder what it is and why it is there, and then recall you “sold” a piece to this magazine a year (give or take) ago. “Payment” has arrived!

Holding your breath, you flip to your work, read it quickly, then read it slowly. The breath bit speaks to your fear that there will be a typo or missing line or mix-up on the bio or, as happened to me once, completely missing bio. (“I’m Nobody. Who are you? Are you Nobody, too?”)

Another unexpected hazard of print journals is the cover. Some covers containing your work are uber cool. You’d be proud to leave it face up on the coffee table, strut like Chanticleer in the barnyard and say, “Yep. That’s me in there.”

Then there are the other covers. These journals typically land face down or, more likely, get shelved such that spines show only. It’s aesthetically best for everyone, you figure.

One fellow published poet confessed to me that she reads her work and her work only whenever she scores a page in a journal. Then she shelves it. Is she alone in this practice? Rhetorical question, many writers would confess (sheepishly).

Finally, though I still send work to print journals, I’ve found a disadvantage I never thought I’d consider a disadvantage—shelf space. As if the hundreds of books that follow me and my credit card like groupies aren’t enough, I’ve seen precious bookshelf real estate used more and more by journals that printed my work.

How often do I reread my work in these poetry journals, you ask? And how often do others pull their spines to read it themselves? Don’t ask.

This is why I have found myself, curiously enough (for me), bending toward online markets of late. They do not take up expensive shelf space, squeezing the gorgeous Penguin paperbacks and New York Review Books (NYRB) that are already bickering for position like grade-school brothers.

Online work often spans into perpetuity, too. That is, if the journal lasts. Many upstarts have a short life and go the way of all fruit flies.

Plus you can easily share your work with people online. No one’s going to order a copy of the journal that printed your work, but most everyone will be willing to follow a link and read it (or at least pretend to).

In some cases, you even get to read your work aloud and include an online recording. That is, if you can stand your recorded voice (and I know many who cannot).

So, yes. The traditional prestige of print is still quite nice, but the convenience of online only has come up on the inside rail of late, making it attractive as well.

And who are we kidding, anyway? Any editor who says, “Yes!” to your work is the editorial equivalent of Maxwell Perkins, be he or she the steward of print or online.

Can we get an “Amen to that!”?

Thanks, I Needed That!

Once upon a time on a television far, far away, there was a strange series of commercials for Mennen Skin Bracer that featured the catchy byline “Thanks, I needed that!”

Those words quickly entered the lexicon of everyday America, with people, for various reasons, offering sincere or tongue-in-cheek gratitude under the precedence of Mennen’s advertising wisdom.

For those who submit poetry online, the “Thanks, I Needed That!” mentality looms large. Using Submittable as a tracking device, we launch dozens of our poetic progenies into the endless vacuum of hyperspace, then retire to the waiting room from Hell where we wait. And wait. And wait.

Honest, the wait-time has reached epic proportions. Months peel off the calendar. Soon responses have taken longer than it takes for a baby to enter the world. Soon you’re knocking on a year’s time with no news.

The journals are that backed up. Too many submissions. Too few readers.

Given that, imagine a market that prides itself on rapid response, even to the point of flaunting it on their “About” pages. University journals, with their deep benches (as they say in basketball) of student-readers, are especially suited to quick turnarounds.

As Exhibit A, I offer you The Penn Review’s “About” page. Note the words “Currently ranked as one of the 25 Fastest Fiction & Poetry Markets in Duotrope’s database, we strive to respond to all submissions within a week, and are currently averaging a 2-3 day response time.”

You read correctly: A response to your blindly-read poems in three days is unheard of (at least until you tune your ears to the University of Pennsylvania). The frustrated poet, whose line-up of submissions on Submittable currently resembles a 300-year-old redwood tree, can’t help but give it a go, even if it leads to a “no.”

That’s right. Go ahead, UPenn. Reject me! But do it quickly, please, like removing a Band-Aid. Fast. Ouchless.

Show me someone’s out there, in other words. Someone actually reading my work. And then, if you deny my five poems your editorial love, at least let me move on and try them elsewhere (or let me back them into a poetry port for some additional body work).

I promise to speak highly of you, even if you reject me. I’ll do it in the name of expeditiousness. I’ll sing your praises. I won’t even fuss over the rejections, if it comes to that. In fact, I’ll crow, “Thanks, I needed that!” and pass on the skin-tightening after-shave.

Sometimes doing your job quickly is all it takes to make friends in this world, especially if it’s the tortoise-paced poetry world where all manner of shell games take place.

Note to other journals: See how easy…? Go ahead. Make like Menen and slap yourselves in the face. You’ll be happy you did!

“Navel-Gazing” and Other Writing Hazards: Interview with a Poetry Editor

Today, in our last entry before Christmas, we share the partial transcript of an interview conducted with the editor of a small poetry journal. This excerpt focuses on the controversial concept of “navel-gazing.” 

KC stands for this website, as in some writer looking suspiciously like me conducting an interview. PE stands for physical education. (No, wait! Poetry Editor, I mean!)


KC: So how much reading do poetry editors and readers get done this time of year?

PE: That depends, but for the most part, very little. Poetry editors are people, too. We’re not Bob Cratchit at a desk wearing fingerless gloves as we pore over bad poetry, feeding it to some cold fire turned roaring. We have families, too. And the Ghost of Shopping Future to attend to.

KC: Good one. Why, then, does it “depend”?

PE: Because some journals are in such deep holes with their to-be-read piles that they use so-called “free time” to catch up. Thus is a misnomer born.

KC: I’m not sure I’d want my work to be read during “free time” like that. I suspect Mr. Poetry Cratchit might be a tad grouchy like his boss.

PE: (Laughs) Well, maybe so, maybe so. Kind of like the way we used to insist certain teachers didn’t “like us” and therefore looked at all our work through some red ink darkly.

KC: Nice allusion. But I’ve been meaning to ask you about something of great interest to poets. Navel-gazing.

PE: Oh, no. Anything but that!

KC: Yes. Lint and all. Poets are constantly warned off self-obsession and treating on topics of little interest to the masses and much interest to themselves. But I’m unclear about the border between such outlying provinces. Is not the human condition universal?

PE: Of course it is and of course that’s true, but you have to go with your gut. Belly-button poetry, as I call it, announces itself quite well. Have you ever been at a party with people who never ask questions, never stop talking to listen, and just go on and on about themselves and their jobs and their health concerns and their children and — God save us — their pets? It’s a torture most exquisite. It should be banned by the Geneva Convention, but isn’t deemed worthy.

KC: Wait a minute. Are you describing Facebook or poetry writing?

PE: (Wagging his finger) Such a wise one. Is your name Melchior, then?

KC: So why can’t a poem about Fido appeal to that huge market out there known as poetry readers who own dogs?

PE: It’s not so much the what as the how. How do you go about it? Belly-button poetry can be killed one if by specifics and two if by abstractions. Too much of your particular pooch and his particular idiosyncrasies and readers will be “hash-tag who cares?” And, on the other hand, too much canine cliché and the reader will be bored by line three. Overly warmed by dryer lint and sleepy with ennui.

KC: Ah, I think I get it. The advantage seems to go, in this day and age, to political poetry and to societal poetry. Can one navel-gaze on that front, too?

PE: Yes. Navel-gazing is an equal-opportunity art killer. The poem must speak to the universal human experience in a most particular way. The particular way, however, cannot be a boring way. True, it may be informed by experience and usually is, but it’s all about the vehicle.

KC: “To a Buick Skylark,” you’re telling us?

PE: Ha! You’re showing your age there! Buick Skylarks went out of production just before the century flipped. I’m sure Percy Bysshe Shelley appreciates the allusion, though.

KC: So what might be your advice on the navel-gazing front? Something useful for our readers on this site….

PE: Stop thinking about yourself so much. Turn the ego loose for a few hours, like a kid going outside to play in the 60s. Out of sight but not out of mind. Observe the world around you and write about it.  See the ordinary in extraordinary ways. Keep your sense of humor and creative play nearby. Experiment. Read other poets’ work religiously. Read a wide swath of poetry journals religiously. Write the equivalent of questions. Write the equivalent of listening and report it objectively and faithfully. And if you’re going to navel-gaze, for God’s sake do it without being obvious. Perhaps it’s helpful to consider the world and the people around you as belly buttons. Gaze there and reflect on that in your own signature way through your own voice. Does that help?

KC: It’s a frightening image, actually.

PE: Narrative poetry, too. Humans are hardwired for stories, even yours if they are attached to meaning and universal truths that will have readers nodding their heads and connecting in their own ways. When the “I” in your first-person poems becomes the “I” for readers, you’ve pulled it off. Your “I” is their “I,” and no one’s the wiser—all while your poem “teaches” in its subtle ways. I know this is not exactly helpful, but it’s salutary to just consider the whole idea of self-obsession before writing. Some writers won’t even go that far. They are just writing for the self, for their own ego’s self-massaging. And finally, I would advise that you share drafts with people you trust. Not boiler-plate rejecting editors like me, but people who don’t pull punches, who traffic in “tough love,” which is something every new poem needs.

KC: Tough love and gut punches. Right in the button de belly?

PE: You got it. Punches to the poem’s solar plexus. Punches that feel painfully good, once the soreness wears off.

KC: Thanks for sharing your wisdom, sir. A merry and a happy to you and yours!

PE: Thank you!



thumbs down

Rejections. They’re part of the game when you’re a writer. You bundle up some poems, send them out, hope for the best.

But sometimes you feel confident. The reason? You do what you’re supposed to be doing. You heed the editors’ cries and actually read the poems they publish “to get an idea of what we like.” And sometimes you wonder about poems they like. Why on earth would an editor say “I do” to a poem like that? Why would she marry herself to such a lame excuse for poetry?

There are a few reasons. Sometimes, just as you want to promote your own poetry by getting it published, editors want to promote their journals by publishing known names they can splash on their covers, thus upping the “prestige factor” of their magazine. In that case, real estate is sucked up by writers who sometimes live on past reputations as much as present merit.

Or sometimes questionable poems just fit an editor’s personal quirks. He likes that style. He likes form poems. He likes rhyme in a free-verse world. He likes that topic.

The same holds for rejected poems that, by all accounts, seem as strong or stronger than what goes into the journal. It could be you’re not a known entity and thus, don’t even get a true hearing. Private country club-itis stops you at the door. End of story. Or it could be, as is true with students taking high-stakes tests in schools, the mood, health, or temperament of the editor that particular day worked against your poem.

Then again, it could be a numbers game. Many submissions are only partially read by readers helping an editor out. They may stop reading, mid-poem (or even four lines in) if, quite frankly, they don’t like how it starts. I dare say (but fear to say it), some submissions are rejected without being read at all. Is this really possible, you ask? Of course. Anything that’s possible can and will occur. Who knows, really?

Which is not to say I’m questioning the integrity of editors. The vast majority are overworked and dedicated to a cause we mutually deem important. I’m simply saying editors are human, and thus subject to human weaknesses.

To think of rejections this way can only be helpful to writers, who have to understand it as a numbers game being played in an existential world of organized (Submittable, anyone?) chaos. If your work is good–or certainly as good as work you’re seeing published–it will eventually take root somewhere. But it will not necessarily be automatic. Or quick.

The system does not work that way. Not until your name is Billy Collins or Mary Oliver.