Fighting about poems: Shenandoah NZ Diary, Part II

Received by Email While Guest-Editing

I reject your rejection. You are not qualified
to cast me off. I’m a luminary: let me direct
your attention to an interstellar anthology.
You, sir or madam, have provoked a righteous
snit. A catastrophic reversion of my recent
surgery. You institutionalized me. My well-
being’s been battered by bad form letters.
Really, you made me very sad. And angry.
Sad, angry, sad, like stop-motion photography,
the sun rising, flaming, cooling, doused
with all my fondest hopes. You sack of dolts.
I thought we were friends. What a joke
your life is, what a waste of gravity. I project thee
into orbit now, thick-pate lightweight. Respectfully.

So, I wanted a new experience—creative, professional, pedagogical—and I got it, with a vengeance (although I’m hoping I haven’t inspired acts of vengeance). In May I sent out a call for work for a special Shenandoah poetry portfolio to appear in February 2013. By the September 1 deadline we had 103 packets, mostly 5 poems per author, from writers all over New Zealand and a few Aotearoans in exile. When I say “all over,” I really mean a high number from the Wellington area and a smattering from each of the other regions; my network is Wellington-based and I was only partially successful getting the word out more widely. Still, that’s a lot of poetry, and Rod Smith, Shenandoah’s Editor-in-Chief, told us we can publish a maximum of twenty-five.

The intermittent “we” in the above paragraph includes my co-editors Drew Martin and Max Chapnick. Both are senior undergraduates—although I have been suspicious for years about graduate student gatekeepers at other magazines filtering out unfashionable poems, poems that allude to sources beyond their own reading, and poems about aging bodies and other transformations born of getting older. In fact, I did like the submissions about parenthood and middle-aged chagrin more than Drew and Max did, and they liked poems of youthful urgency more than I tended to. I wanted to work with them, though, partly because of these differences. They’re different from each other, too—Drew, a musician, is drawn to oral energy and Max to allusive, intellectual stuff—but they’re both talented, opinionated, and forthright. I thought it would be clarifying to fight over poems, defending what we loved and finding ways to articulate our disappointments.

It turned out that we agreed on almost nothing. Through late August and the first week of September we read all the packets individually, marking them yes, no, and maybe. Max was the soft-hearted maybe-man while Drew and I had larger “yes” and “no” piles. Unfortunately, they weren’t the same piles. In in our first meeting, we discovered that only three authors had inspired unanimous yeses, and in those packets we were drawn to different poems. We then met twice a week for four or five weeks to wrangle each other into aesthetic submission. We came to agreement on seventeen-ish and the rest was bargaining: “you can have this, if I can have that.” Sometimes a weak line was a sticking point and we agreed to accept the poem while encouraging revision of the trouble-spot. I’ve gratefully received suggestions on my own poems from generous editors at Poet Lore, Poetry, Agni and other mags; it always seems like a sign of good editing to me and I wanted to imitate it. I’m thankful even when a rejection comes with a suggestion. Editors have overwhelming jobs, usually on top of other, paying jobs. When they show that much interest in your work, it’s flattering.

I feel good about our issue-in-progress, but for better or worse, this isn’t the issue I would have assembled by myself. I have some regrets over rejected poems. I liked a number of pieces whose virtues I never managed to articulate convincingly enough to my co-editors. One effect of the process, though, that’s probably good: my co-editors were much less cowed by big names, and not having met the submitters, were more impartial than I. (I had several crises—“Right, right, the poem has problems but we can’t reject HER/HIM!”—and they just shot me skeptical looks and waited for me to stop hyperventilating). They talked me into accepting a few poems they love but I merely respect; this is a collaboration so everyone has to win and lose sometimes. They also showed me the power in a few pieces I wouldn’t have read twice.  The result: some good work will be left out of the issue because no one fell in love with it. Every poem that willappear had a fervent champion.

Other side-effects: at least for the moment, I’m smarter about revising my own poems, because it’s easier to see what’s reject-able about them. I understand better than ever that good isn’t good enough: you have to provoke delight, passion. And, reading responses to our rejections—notes that are variously chagrined, gracious, and indignant—I can see I might not have the stomach to edit full-time. It’s hard to turn good poems away, especially when the respondents are gracious. It’s even harder to shrug off the angry replies, knowing how often I’ve swallowed the same frustration. Too much fighting! The poem up top was easy to write, not because I feel superior to my irate respondents, but because I identify with them utterly.

2 thoughts on “Fighting about poems: Shenandoah NZ Diary, Part II

  1. Great post! With my colleague Malcolm St Hill, I edit the poetry part of SWAMP (http://www.swampwriting.com/), a journal for postgraduate writing. We get fewer submissions that your mighty 100+, but Malcolm and I only ever agree on about half the poems. We sometimes also agree on an author, but not the poem! I’ve found that Malcolm has shown me wonderful aspects of poems that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

    Like

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