Turns out there’s some good news about rejection I never really grasped before. I’m reading poetry for Shenandoah in earnest now and realizing rejected poems DO reach sympathetic readers, at least if you send them to well-edited magazines: the editors and staff readers themselves.
I am moved, entertained, impressed, and intrigued by far more work than Shenandoah can accept. I’m sure some journal readers are burnt-out or ego-tripping, but I’m inclined to guess magazine editors are often a good audience–smart about the field and in love with the art. You’d think I would know this by now. I’ve definitely felt that connection with certain editors who reject my work with personal notes like “admired these” or “came close.” But being on the other side makes it more vivid, and it cheers me.
My earlier forays into editing were less heartening. When I was newer at W&L–hired as a scholar, but writing poetry always–I once picked up a batch of poems to screen for Shenandoah‘s previous editor, R. T. Smith. Everything was paper then, and I remember sifting submissions at home by lamplight. It was clear that certain cliche-ridden lines centered on the page in flowery purple ink were not contenders, but much of the work was good. As an aspiring poet, this horrified me–how could I ever shine in these realms of gold? I suspect my competitive reaction made me a bad reader, but I was also, in those days, much less sure of my own taste and likely to be overly-influenced by the biases of other poets and critics (not unlike other young screeners at some journals now, maybe). Also a problem: I was solidly well-read in early-to-mid-20th century verse, but my knowledge of contemporary verse was spotty. At any rate, Rod never asked me to read general submissions for him again, and I was busy enough never to seek another chance.
Later, working with a couple of undergraduate interns, I edited a portfolio of poems from New Zealand for Shenandoah. That was more fun, but I also learned hard lessons. First: personal feedback in rejection letters is often returned by expletives and other hostilities, and is rarely worth it. Second: I didn’t have a strong enough network to solicit a seriously diverse portfolio, especially since Rod suggested not paying contributors, given the difficulties of international paperwork without a managing editor (I wish I’d pushed back on that point).
What’s changed: I’ve been reading new poetry heavily for years now, so while nobody knows all the names and scenes within even just U.S. verse, I know a lot more. I’ve also become a better poet myself and a better creative writing teacher, more adept at literary diagnosis.
Plus, the new editor, Beth Staples, is fabulous, and she’s framed the gig in a way I love. She reads everything that comes in and assigns many of the poems to me via Submittable. I vote yes-no-maybe on each batch with a brief explanation, and she makes the final call. We agree most of the time but not always, which strikes me as a great thing–two thoughtful people willing to challenge each other’s reactions probably make better choices.
I had feared that reading so much poetry as a teacher might drain my potential well of editorial energy, but even though I will run out of hours when the term intensifies (I’m on the verge!), I find the tasks of responding to student writers and evaluating a submission pile quite different. Basically, the Shenandoah part of the job involves delivering educated gut reactions to Beth bluntly–I am far briefer and more straightforward than I would be with an undergraduate because I’m describing a judgment rather than cultivating promise (for the most part). I’ll note that a poem moved me but the lineation doesn’t make sense, or I was dazzled by the voice but there’s one clunky clause that bothers my ear. Beth has a lot of experience about the tipping points: when might slight changes be acceptable to an author if you frame the response the right way? When is it too much to ask, too interfering?
For anyone who submitted poems to her several weeks back and hasn’t received a response yet: you might be in our growing “maybe” pile, which means at least one of us really liked your submission and we need to come back to it and make some hard calls. We are receiving a high volume of poetry subs and they’re impressive–it’s a much more diverse stack than I expected, too, both in terms of aesthetics and in the identities and experiences of the submitters. This is AWESOME but it does make poetry an especially competitive genre at Shenandoah.
For anyone who has received a rejection: I am sorry, and please don’t send me hate mail for saying so. Many submissions are powerful without quite making it into the must-have pile; some nag at my memory already and make me wish I had a spare hour to talk with the writer. Bringing urgent material together with strong craft is HARD. Yes, there are batches by people who clearly don’t read contemporary writing, as well as sexist tripe and other obnoxiousness. But most authors are working hard and are worthy of a reader’s respect.
Also know that I look forward to reading submissions and wish I had more time to spend with them, even after long, tiring September work-days. Hang in there, keep ruthlessly revising your poems until the power beams out of them, and do hit send, and send, and send.