Poets & Writers

5 posts

Advice From 10 Who Made It to the Promised Land (Read: Publication)


I there’s one thing people can’t get enough of, it’s chocolate. (Wait. Did I say chocolate? I meant inspiration.) This is why I like Poet & Writers Inspiration issue the most. In the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue, we get surveys of ten poets who scored debut collections in 2019.

These ten are asked the same questions, answered under these categories: “How It Began,” “Inspiration,” “Writer’s Block Remedy,” “Advice,” “Age/Residence,” “Time Spent Writing the Book,” and “Time Spent Finding a Home for It.”

And while there’s a lot of interesting stuff here by people you can’t help but cheer for (they made it!), let’s focus on the advice, shall we? Because if there’s one thing people can’t get enough of, it’s advice. (Um. After they’re inspired and full of chocolate, I mean.)

  • Patty Crane (Bell I Wake To): “Believe in the work, be patient, persist. Quiet all the voices except the inner one. Less is more. If you’re not sure whether the poem belongs in the collection, it probably doesn’t. Make the book the final poem. Submit the manuscript to presses whose publications you love. Keep moving forward, thinking about poems for the next book.”
  • Camonghne Felix (Build Yourself a Boat): “You’ll never get another debut! Your first is your first. Fight for yourself, advocate for your project, and trust your community if they tell you it’s not ready.”
  • Jake Skeets (Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers): “Carry your manuscript everywhere with you.”
  • Yanyi (The Year of Blue Water): “I’ve found that it is more important to love your own book than getting it published. I mean the kind of nourishing love you feel when you read the poetry you admire. This is the love that will help you edit it. It will help you advocate for it and send it out again and maybe one day read it over and over as though it is still new to you. Because it should be. Become your own reader and someone else will read it too.”
  • Marwa Helal (Invasive Species): “Take your time—or, I am paraphrasing, ‘Time is your friend,’ which is what my teacher Sigrid Nunez once told me. Trust your path and your work. Talk about it; don’t be shy about sharing your dreams. You never know who is listening or willing to point you to the next step in your path.”
  • Maya C. Popa (American Faith): “Don’t worry about how much or how little you write. It’s judicious to practice some degree of self-discipline, assuming you’re serious about completing a project. But don’t compare your practice with that of others. Trust that as long as you’re paying the right sort of attention to your life and the world, there’s a lot going on in the brain that will allow for writing to happen later on.”
  • Sara Borjas (Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff): Write toward honesty, then really write toward honesty. Stop lying.”
  • Maya Phillips (Erou): “I’d probably say be bold. Experiment with your work, and don’t edit out all the fun and the strangeness and the wonder.”
  • Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes (The Inheritance of Haunting): “Writing an abstract that articulates what the collection is about can help to communicate your work to editors while allowing you to create a map for what else your manuscript is asking to become.”
  • Keith Wilson (Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love): “Being published is a call someone else makes. It’s hard to know what to do to please others, and it’s maybe contrary to the place your poetry comes from. But someone’s first book changed you. Know that there are people waiting for yours.”

“Catching Grain Through Spread Fingers”


You may think it strange that I annotate magazines, but sometimes, thumbing through them afterwards, I enjoy revisiting certain lines. The sentences and paragraphs I choose are not necessarily pithy like an adage or purposeful like a sage. Sometimes they just strike me and the reason is, as the French say, je ne sais quoi.

For example, the September/October 2019 issue of Poets & Writers, I annotated these lines from a piece called “The New Nonfiction 2019”:

“I could not know then that it would take me nearly two decades to figure out what, exactly, I meant and that some of those ideas would compose my first book. Writing now about the experience of making this book feels like catching grain through spread fingers—almost but not quite like magic, since we know the best writing work is the hardest labor. It is still painful to remember much of it. To note all of the things that no one told me before I plunged: the tarrying loneliness of making a book; the confidence that waxes and wanes (mostly wanes); and the urgent matter of finding one’s tribe, so that when you realize the vast distance between starting and finishing and threaten to quit they can remind you that James Baldwin said, ‘Deep water and drowning are not the same thing.'”    — Sarah M. Broom, author of The Yellow House (Grove Press, August)

“Before I wrote essays, I used to string together pretty sentences I’d call stories and then wait around for the world’s admiration. It was kind of like riding my bike through a parade in sunny weather but with a creeping sense that something wasn’t right. After college I discovered the essay and found a way into the real work—the hard work—I’d always wanted to do. I loved the scrappy elasticity of the essay, loved spending time in this place where you bring everything along, where you can fashion your own complicated misfit from some combination of a first-person perspective and the bizarre raw materials of the world. I even liked how, for a while there at least, the essay was not really capital-L literature, or not quite pure. My position was: ‘If you need me, I’ll be in the shadows working on my bastard art.’ Even now, writing essays gives me permission—to drag strange things home without explanation, to bring together disparate worlds, to live offline with my secrets.”     –Krista Eastman, author of The Painted Forest (West Virginia University Press, October)

And from an interview of Ben George, senior editor at Little, Brown, in a piece called “Agents & Editor,” I noted this:

“Sadly, it’s a primary part of the job—falling in love with a book and getting your heart broken because someone else acquires it yet managing to keep your heart open for the next great book.”

(Nota bene: I loved the idea of an editor getting his heart broken instead of a writer. That happens? I asked. Of course it does. And every writer, for inspiration, should imagine a big-time editor losing out on his or her manuscript because some other publisher scooped it up first. This image is a long way from the more concrete one of boilerplate rejection emails.)

“I also don’t think a writer should ever make a change to a book that doesn’t in her gut feel like the right change to make. In an editorial letter from the novelist and New Yorker editor William Maxwell to Eudora Welty, Maxwell once said, simply, ‘I trust you to be firm about the unhelpful suggestions.’ I’ve always remembered that.”

(Nota bene: Note my attraction to quotes that empower writers who, by their very nature, are used to rejection.”)

“Look, every day we hope to read an amazing novel. Editors are first and foremost just readers who are moved and delighted by books. And the editor’s greatest desire is to bring an exquisite book to readers.”

(Nota bene: Amen, Mr. Just Reader. Amen! May I someday write a book that delights not only you, but both Little and Brown!)

Why Do You Write? Seven Reasons


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?

What Submittable Has Done To Us

A most interesting article appears in the Nov./Dec. issue of Poets & Writers. It’s called (and pay attention to the subtitle!) “Diving Into the Digital Slush Pile: How Online Submissions Are Changing Lit Mags (And Your Chances of Publication).”

Let’s take a time out before we dive in, shall we? Any writer submitting to lit mags already knows that this isn’t Kansas anymore. For one, most every writer north of Honduras knows that Submittable is addictive for both editors and writers. And if you live south of Saskatchewan, you’ve probably figured out that this thing called “a reading fee” is making itself comfortable like a guest staying past three days.

But what does it all mean? Two things, it appears. One, Submittable is hurting writers’ bottom line while helping magazines’. And two, the easier it gets for everyone (and their sister) to submit, the harder it gets to land an acceptance. In other words, change is not always a good thing.

Still, as the article attests, when you factor in all the costs of snail mail (postage, materials, and that vanishing commodity called time), reading fees might be a deal. Why, then, a dozen submissions later, does one feel like George Washington after his doctor has bled him (again)?

Holdout magazines like Alaska Quarterly Magazine and Antioch Review (editors of both interviewed here) are feeling the heat, too. AQR‘s Ronald Spatz admits that he might be missing cutting-edge  (read: “young, up-and-coming”) writers by sticking with snail mail. So he did an experiment. He played Submittable’s game for a month in Sept. of 2017.

What happened? “In that time [Spatz] expected to receive three hundred to four hundred manuscripts over the digital transom. Instead he received 1,190—on top of the paper submissions that were still arriving via postal mail.”

This is where holy meets Toledo, folks.

The whole experiment might have led Spatz to change AQR‘s policy for good and go all-in for digital, but he resisted for a wonderful reason: “He believes it’s unethical to invite the deluge of manuscripts he would get online until he has enough staff to read all of them in a timely manner.”

Which can only mean that some lit mags are soldiering on under impossible conditions: too many manuscripts, too few readers, too long a response time. Why would they do such a thing? In the language of that plutocracy we call “U.S.A.”: m-o-n-e-y.

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].'”

Meanwhile, John Fogarty, editor of the Antioch Review, has other solutions to the never-rest Everest Submittable creates.  He’s considering a policy of directly soliciting work from a small group of established writers Antioch has already worked with. “The volume is so large that it is almost impossible to manage at this point,” he says.

If you as a writer think the penny ante-financial drain of regular submission fees is rough, consider the fees charged for increasingly-popular contests. $25, $30, $35. While these might not be salad days for lit mags, there is a discernible uptick in their bottom lines, as they can now use writers’ money to pay off judges and readers of the hopeful writers’ wares.

The conclusion seems to be clear: In its innocent way, Submittable might be hurting your chances of publication. After all, convenience equals congestion equals competition at previously unprecedented levels.

Solutions? You can continue to patronize those magazines that shun reading fees, for one. Or, as the article suggests, you can take a chill pill. Read the magazines you submit to first. Narrow down the periodicals you’d like to be a part of and submit to them and them alone. Stop carpet-bombing!

What’s more, the article wonders, what’s this rush to publication all about anyway? Many writers are rushing works to markets before they’re even ready, just adding to the problem. Wait! Get feedback from fellow writers! Let it cook for a year! Then submit to a small group of magazines—ones you personally love.

If that sounds an awful lot like self-discipline, something people are not very good at, you’re right. Still, it’s advice worth trying. We are in a brave new world here, one where more and more writers are paying more and more money for someone to tell them their writing sucks.

Or, in some cases, one where more and more writers are paying for some front-line intern to skim and reject their work because, well, said intern has such a mountainous pile to scale that he or she is not going to bother giving every single piece a fair reading. Rather, it’s check the box. Caught up. Done. Next?

If that sounds unfair, you need only be reminded that digital life, like life itself, is unfair. As for literary magazines, they want to be fair and they’re doing their best, but injustices will happen. It’s all collateral damage, after all. At a $1.86-a-pop profit, Submittable’s way is here to stay, and everyone has to adjust appropriately.

Trump-Voter Gloaters and Other Christmas Hazards


On the Eve. It’s the name of a Turgenev novel, but I’m more attuned to the calendar than Russian Literature as Christmas cards blow like white drifts into the mailbox. Today we are on the Eve of the Eve, and my mind is scattered poetic and prosaic with holiday overload. Time to hit the release valve, in other words, with some random observations:

  • The big thing this year is Christmas cards with pics on front AND back. Dogs (and, to a lesser degree, cats) have become members of the family recently. There they are, grinning in the line-up, their names listed along with Bobby’s and Suzy’s. Next we’ll be reading updates on their college careers and job promotions.
  • Will the Christmas form letter never go away? We had a few that opened with and went on and on about the election, of all things. Do we want to read about the election in the holiday season? We do not. And to the letter, every electioneering form-letter jabberer has been a Trump voter cloaked in red and green false modesty. (“Both candidates were flawed, but one was more flawed in our opinion, so we had little choice but to go the way we did! Still, despite hard feelings in the family, we managed to make it through Thanksgiving!”) Given their obvious lack of sensitivity, I doubt they’ll be as lucky at Christmas. For starters, they can throw their exclamation points onto the Yuletide fire and rejoin the human race.
  • Christmas Eve morning is the holiest of the year for me. Holy in a doughy kind of way. I rise around four a.m., turn on the infernal Christmas carols (about the only time I’ll endure them), and build my Christmas stollen alone in the kitchen with my four cups of coffee and predictable (by 7) acid stomach.
  • Speaking of, all I want for Christmas is my 21-year-old stomach. Probably in a scrap metal shop along about now. Somewhere in the cast iron section.
  • According to the new issue of Poets & Writers, these are salad days for black writers. The market is actively seeking good writers of color because, well, they are selling. About time, I say.
  • The irony of a race renaissance in publishing during a dark time of renewed racism in public life is not lost on us. Apparently Trump voters are not the ones buying books. Or much reading them.
  • Anyone submitting poetry to journals knows that these are salad days for LGBTQ writers, too. Dozens of submission guidelines now feature a pronounced desire to print more of their work.
  • Where does the expression “salad days” come from? Shakespeare, of course. Antony & Cleopatra’s Act I, Scene 5: “My salad days, When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, To say as I said then!” (Cleo, pre-asp, speaking).
  • I’ve read a lot of William Carlos Williams in my day, but only today came across his “Prelude to Winter”:

The moth under the eaves
with wings like
the bark of a tree, lies
symmetrically still —

And love is a curious
soft-winged thing
unmoving under the eaves
when the leaves fall.

  • Old WCW must’ve known he’d hit on a good thing when he wrote “love is a curious /  soft-winged thing” and then built a little poem around it. Sometimes the line comes first, then drives the poem.
  • The term “glass ceiling,” a popular metaphor that gained greater currency in a presidential election where a woman came this close to winning, should be put out on loan for poets trying to break into major-league journals with names that like… well… names. Just as women have to try harder to just match a man who tries less, wannabe poets and writers have to try harder to match sub-standard work by bigger poet and writer names. Pass the Windex and pray for clear-seeing editors!
  • For my 10-day holiday break, I’ve piled up a few books from interlibrary loan, including Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth (cool title, French setting, and short length) and a collection of Scottish poet Norman MacCaig’s work. He’s been on my list to check out for a while, and boy-howdy, is there a lot to check out. This man is a poetic Joyce Carol Oates!
  • To all my readers (all five of you), have a very Merry and a Happy, resolution-free New, too!