Oh Contrarian

On Sunday, I sat on a panel of editors talking about “How to Stand Out in a Slush Pile.”  Whenever I do these things, I can’t help feeling like an arrogant iconoclast.  Like the class show-off, asleep with his feet on the desk, because he breezed through another mid-term exam.  That was me in high school and college, though, so maybe that’s just me.

The rest of the panel was a quintessential group of editors — well-meaning, selfless, committed people — but I find myself disagreeing with almost everything they say, right down to the very nature of what a literary magazine should be.  Other editors never say they like chatty cover letters, they never recognize the importance of the internet, they revere the established literary order, rather than approach it skeptically.  There are many exceptions, of course, which is why they’re worth pointing out (praising the decisions of the Poetry Foundation, for example), but the old guard is an old guard, and for the most part, I think they’re wrong.

Rather than talk about the panel, though, I thought I’d turn back to the always-useful CLMP Directory (if you care enough about the business of poetry to be reading this blog, you really should at least flip through a copy at the library sometime).  Scattered throughout the book are interviews with editors, each asking the same dozen or so questions.  Since they didn’t ask to interview me, I’ve never answered them before;  I figure now’s as good a time as any.  Maybe I’ll get in the next issue.  What I’ll do is quote from a typical editor’s answer, and then explain how I’d disagree.

Do you have any cover letter advice?

Definitely: keep it short and to the point… You may include a brief bio note (professional, not cute — or at least in the style of the notes in that particular publication), but more than that may do more harm than good, sometimes revealing more than you intend to…
–Margaret D. Bauer, Editor, North Carolina Literary Review

Editors always say this, and it’s perplexing to me.  If I read 50 cover letters a day, and they’re all short and to the point, using the same form paragraph, I’m not going to read them — so why even include one?  For the most part, despite all the submitters’ hand-wringing and editors’ admonitions, I just don’t pay attention to cover letters whatsoever.  I skim them to see if there are any specific questions, and if they have a personality and the poet is funny or friendly or freaky or smug, I think, “Well isn’t this person funny or friendly or freaky or smug!”  But how does that have anything to do with the poems they sent?

The same thing applies to bios.  Yeah, sometimes people write whole paragraphs about their cats, and that’s sad.  Sometimes people list all 160 of their publication “credits,” and that’s obnoxious — but we publish obnoxious people all the time, why should I care?  I’m not inviting them to my house for dinner or adopting one of their arthritic cats; I’m printing their poem inside a stack of perfect-bound papers.  Most of the people we publish never meet me outside of a letter or two.  I don’t have to like you — and even if I do like you, I trust my sense of objectivity enough that it holds no sway.

To go even further, I don’t understand why it’s assumed one should include a bio in the first place.  If you read Rattle‘s guidelines, you might notice that we don’t really ask for one.  Yet they always come, because it’s standard procedure, because when typical editors tell you that your publication history doesn’t matter, it’s B.S.  There’s always a steady stream of posturing about how only the writing really matters — but if that were true, bios would only be requested after the fact.

What do you look for in a submission?

I would guess most editors would answer this question in much the same, vague way.  We look for work that is exciting, dynamic, and fresh.  We want excellent prose and images that surprise. … Finally, we look for what we’ve come to call the “pop-up factor.”  I finish reading a piece, I pop-up out of my chair, find the first person I can, and say, “Oh my god, you’ve got to read this!”
–Jeanne Lieby, Editor, The Southern Review

She’s right that this is a very difficult question to answer without being vague, but my answer is technically (at least) specific — I want a poem to be memorable.  I want to be walking through my day and spontaneously think of something I read in Rattle five years ago.  That’s no easy task, reading 50,000 poems one year, and having any of them live in your heart to the next.  But that’s the challenge.  And I don’t think the prose has to be sparkling or the images startling to achieve that — transformation can come in any register, from any poet, on any subject, in any style.  And does.

That is a vague answer, though.

How are submissions processed at your magazine?

Even though we reject 95% of what we read, we read eagerly. We are incapable of disrespecting the slush pile (even when we experience a long run of bad material) because we have learned that the slush pile, like the world at large, contains surprises.  Some of our best material came in the mail, unbidden.  Once that happens, you, as an editor, are forever altered; you will always see the possibilities of submissions, no matter how grinding that reading can sometimes be.
–Marc Smirnoff, Editor and Founder, Oxford American

Well, if we only rejected 95% of what we read, each issue would be 2,500 pages long.  And if only “some” of our best material came in the mail, unbidden, we’d be publishing an awful lot of blank pages.  For me, the slush pile doesn’t just contain surprises — the slush pile is the entire enterprise.  I’m trying to build an active community of participating poets, and that means everyone who submits is a part of the community.  There is no VIP entrance straight to the balcony.  Everyone who comes here has to knock, and it’s our job to answer the door every time.

I think this is the fundamental difference between my view and the common view.  Reading submissions is, indeed, like panning for gold (a common metaphor), but to me the stream is more important than the gold itself.  The gold is always there; it’s the water that gives you life.

Do you have a favorite unsolicited submission discovery or anecdote?

This may be contrary to popular belief, but we don’t solicit often.  Because of The Southern Review‘s history and stature (and because we pay our authors), we really don’t have to.  The daily mail contains work from some of this country’s most important writers.  On one day, I received poems from Charles Simic and Mary Oliver. But that should in no way discourage new writers. Our greatest joy is finding writers whose work has not yet reached a wide audience.
–Jeanne Lieby, Editor, The Southern Review

If you take a look at the Winter 2009 issue of The Southern Review, you’ll notice that both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver are there in the table of contents.  I’m sure those poems did come in the mail, unsolicited, as I’m sure does most of the work in the magazine — and let me say, too, that it’s a wonderful production full of fine writing, and one of the magazines I admire.  But there are two kinds of solicitations, I think — when we use that word, we’re usually referring to the active process of asking a poet directly if they have some work to share.  Most often, I assume, there’s the implication that the editor might look at the work and ultimately say no, even though it was requested.  Of course they rarely so no, but they could say no — fine.  In a typical magazine, these kind of solicitations seem to account for about 20% of the work in an issue.  Some entries in the CLMP Directory list that self-reported figure, and 20% seems to be the average.

But in addition to that, I think, is an unspoken Godfatheresque “offer-too-good-to-refuse” solicitation, wherein the editor, upon receiving poems from both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver on the same day, ends up publishing poems by Charles Simic and Mary Oliver.  Every single time.   This is just a hunch, because there’s very little evidence one way or the other — editors don’t talk about poets that they rejected; to do so would be offensive, if not unethical.

I won’t tell you who, either, but I’ve rejected my share of well-known poets, and I can guess from some of their reactions that it doesn’t happen to them often.  Some are gracious and understanding, but many of them get pissed.  They write back telling you how many awards they’ve won, and how worthless your opinion is, and then they never send you new work ever again.  They see you at a conference years later and act like it never happened, because maybe they forgot, or maybe they want to prove to you how little that interaction really meant to them.

Now, I love both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver.  In all honesty, they’re two of my favorite poets.  But when I read their books, I can’t turn off my editor’s cap, and I know that I’d only want to publish maybe 1 in 10 of their poems in Rattle.  Sometimes the poems only work in the context of the book, sometimes they’re on topics or in styles that we’re tired of, and sometimes they’re just not interesting poems.  So if both Simic and Oliver sent us poems on the same day, the odds of them both appearing in our next issue wouldn’t be very high.  (And if you two are reading this, feel free to test me!)

There’s an idea that’s pretty ubiquitous throughout the literary world, that having names like Mary Oliver and Charles Simic on your back cover helps you sell copies.  But I really don’t think people read literary magazines to see big names — I think what sells copies is a consistent and fair editorial process, and poems that are memorable.

If I were answering this question, I do have a favorite anecdote.  Again, I don’t want to reveal the poet’s name, because the story might be embarrassing for him.  But there’s one poet who sent us a submission every month for years, and had been doing so long before I joined the staff at Rattle.  He was always friendly, but eternally persistent.  And then with submission #45 — after showing us almost 200 poems — he sent one that I absolutely loved.  I really wish I could tell you which it is, because I was so happy to publish it, but I won’t even hint. Sorry.

What advice do you have for first time submitters?

For crying out loud, read the magazine you are submitting to. … Guess what?  Editors aren’t interested in pieces that falls outside of their interests and inclinations.  Luckily for freelance writers, editors are predictable beasts.  To find out all about their secret and hidden loves and hates all you need to do is scour their magazines.
–Marc Smirnoff, Founder and Editor, Oxford American

This statement is everywhere, and usually accompanied by a plea for subscriptions.  I do think it’s important to read a magazine’s guidelines, because certain rules do have important administrative implications.  For example, because of our email system, it’s really important that subject lines are unique, so we ask that people include their name, rather than just “Rattle Submission.”  I’m not the Soup Nazi — it just makes it much easier to organize 50 submissions a day.

But I couldn’t care less whether or not you read Rattle first, and the last thing I want you to do is read the magazine and send us poems that sound similar to pieces we’ve already published.  Why the hell would we want t repeat ourselves?

Contrary to Marc’s statement, I’m particularly interested in pieces that fall outside of my own personal tastes.  If you really want to be manipulative, the best way to get into Rattle is to write a cover letter that says, “I’ve read a few issues and didn’t see any of ____ kind of poetry.”  I want the magazine to be eclectic, and the quickest route to a guilt-trip is to point out my own blind spots. Getting past them, and imagining how a poem will effect a reader other than oneself is the biggest challenge for any editor.  I can use all the help I can get.

If literary magazines ever get unstuck from the mud of cultural irrelevance, editors are going to need to change the typical mindset.  Journals aren’t tabloids or glamor magazines or Sports Illustrated, and they never will be.  They’re not objects of consumption; they’re organisms of involvement.  They shouldn’t be disseminated from a mountaintop, but rather grown from the ground.  Poetry isn’t spread; it’s cultivated.  Slush isn’t slush; it’s soil.

2 thoughts on “Oh Contrarian

  1. Tim,

    Why don’t you do a blog on the best & worst cover designs for literary journals? Yeah, I know it is not as scholarly as discussing the masterpieces therein, but it could be a lot of fun potentially. Actually, I’m curious how you (or whoever makes that decision) chooses cover designs. Rattle seems to be less haphazard than many journals since your covers usually reflect the theme of that issue.

    There is one poetry journal (I shouldn’t mention it, right?) whose covers always seem to be hazy black & white photographs, usually decades old. It practically screams out pretentiousness and obscurity. I’ve read an issue and guess what? That’s exactly what’s inside.

    Anyway, thanks for the above blog. It was interesting look at editors.

  2. “Reading submissions is, indeed, like panning for gold (a common metaphor), but to me the stream is more important than the gold itself. The gold is always there; it’s the water that gives you life.”

    This is a very apt metaphor for the submission culling process, Tim. Recently, the journal I edit received a poetry submission from a to-remain-nameless poet who included a YouTube video introduction. I had never seen this sort of thing before. That said, there are certainly daily surprises from the metaphorical “water,” all of which prove interesting if you’re trying to get a grasp on who writes poetry and why they write it.

    I’m interested in that question in and of itself because it’s such a difficult one to answer. On the one hand, you have poets like Simic and Oliver publishing their work all over the place (Simic is actually coming to NC State tomorrow, so I’m going to get a chance to see him)—and on the other you have poets doing day jobs like driving cabs and repairing telephone lines. What I like about RATTLE is that it splits the difference between these two groups and puts them in conversation with one another in every issue.

    Any time I get to read the work of poetry professors like Terrance Hayes alongside the work of cab drivers like Mather Schneider, I get excited because that intersection is, quite simply, difficult to find in other journals and magazines. It’s that appeal to the widest readership possible that I think is RATTLE’s greatest strength. That, and the fact that—in the age of the Submission Manager bots—you respond personally to every submission.

    A gesture of that sort, whether we’re in deep water or a shallow creek as editors and poets, goes a long way. I for one am enjoying the creek. It’s not as shallow and fish-less as people might be led to believe. On the contrary, it’s teeming.

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