Dear poetry professor on submissions (plus dropped balls, tombstones, & “Hap”)

The New York Times ran a “Working Woman’s Handbook” section in the print edition this Sunday, and I read it from cover to cover, even though it defeated the REASON I get the print edition on Sunday mornings, the whole indulgence-with-a-pot-of-tea-on-the-sofa vibe. The handbook made my adrenaline surge and muscles tighten: “Negotiating While Female,” “Ditch the Mommy Guilt,” “Document Everything”–all too close to home! The feature was very business-oriented, and some of it underplays the self-questioning that SHOULD be part of an artist or an intellectual’s working life no matter the gender, but I’m still keeping it open to the article by Jessica Bennett on impostor syndrome. Self-talk and visualization feel goofy, but I am SO guilty of some of the self-undermining behaviors Bennett describes, and I need to stop.

This post is occasioned by another piece from that suite: “Work Life Balance Is a Myth” by Tiffany Dufu (this one doesn’t seem to be online although Dufu has published these ideas in other venues). On the way towards the subheadings “Drop Balls” and “Say No” (Drop the Ball is the name of Dufu’s book), Dufu offers a “visualization exercise adapted from the book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’: Imagine three people eulogizing you at your funeral. What would they say about you? What do you hope they say about you?…Now ask yourself: Are you on the path to becoming the person they describe?” 

In grad school, I had a running joke with some friends that I wanted my tombstone to read “Brilliant and Lovable.” I’m not invested in those particular adjectives anymore–I think I was beginning to worry, back then, about the implicit conflict between them, the idea that for a woman to be brilliant (work first) requires violating the social requirement to be nurturing (people first), and that therefore a brilliant woman is unwomanly. Anyway, I’d rather sidestep THAT mess these days, but the content of my aspirations is similar: while I don’t care if Joe Schmoe finds me “nurturing” and I resist spending my whole life on care-taking activities, I do hope my friends and loved ones feel loved by me. I hope my writing is valued and enjoyed by others. And I hope my students find me to be a good and generous teacher. 

It strikes me that these hopes are not entirely consonant with Dufu’s admonitions to “Drop Balls” and “Say No.” My list does reveal that I don’t care about appearances, not in a deep way, so I should ditch those vestigial anxieties. But being a good and generous teacher means saying “yes” a lot, even when you’re tired and overextended–giving students your full and open attention, when you can. And I’ve been in this job for 25 years, and many former students are still looking for help, so it can be a lot! For instance, I received another out-of-the blue query last weekend from someone who graduated maybe 10 years ago. I thought, first, this is the sort of ball I should drop; and then, second, but I want to be helpful; then, third, maybe I can repurpose the help I give by editing these occasional, mostly off-screen scraps of mentoring. Maybe if I collect and, occasionally, post them, they’ll help others. One exchange is below, a little edited and developed, name redacted. I hope to do it again sometime, so let me know if you have a question, whether or not you’ve ever been enrolled in one of my classes!

And finally, a request. I am collecting the names of essays, books, and poems for a future blog on literary menopause occasioned by a recent New Yorker review of Steinke’s new book. I have several to start with from the latter piece, but I really wish I could think of more poems (besides Moira Egan’s terrific Hot Flash Sonnets!). It’s personal, too, of course: I’ve been in an exhausting amount of joint pain lately, and still have other doctors to consult, but my not-very-helpful GP suggested yesterday these may be untreatable menopause systems (some people react to a drop in estrogen with painful inflammation). I need medical enlightenment, but I’d also appreciate some literary company.   

Q: Hi Professor, 

I have been published a bunch of times but never poems I expect – my best stuff hasn’t been picked up yet and I am curious – how do you go about editing or curating your poems so that you can get them published? 

A: The short version: time/distance plus persistence, with a garnish of recognizing how random publishing can be.

In more detail: I wait for months until the poem is strange to me, so I can be objective about its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve just been rereading poems I drafted during the past year or two, preparing to submit or re-submit them, and I found a few gems; a lot of poems with strong potential but clunky or underdeveloped passages; and some I was once excited about but now realize might not go anywhere. Some poems I thought were shiny and near-complete disappoint me now, and that’s common–with critical distance, I’m better able to admit that a certain element doesn’t work, even though I’m fond of it. Sometimes I have to excise an opening stanza or two, but for me, problems more often occur at or near the end of the poem. (I’ve observed that some poets are great at punchy beginnings and weaker on closure, and others reverse those traits.) You have to be a ruthless trimmer/ re-developer, both for the good of the art and for publishing success, and it just takes a lot of time. There are SO many good poems out there competing for an editor’s attention: the winners are great, or lucky.

Having a few fellow writers to bounce work off of helps, too, whether it’s an informal/ online writing group or an official class. And sending in batches that hang together well, the poems illuminating one other, can help deepen an editor’s sense what you’re up to.

All that said, I’ve heard multiple book editors and contest judges note that the best poems in a book, when you check the acknowledgments, aren’t ones that have been taken by magazines. I’m polishing my next book ms now, including 50-something poems, most of which have been published independently. I still shake my head over the ones that haven’t been, because I feel they’re among my best. Sometimes that’s because they’re risky in some way that’s supported by the book as a whole, but might seem off to a magazine editor with less context. Other times it just seems random. Or am I just wrong about “my best”?…In any case, in addition to bringing your own work to the highest possible shine, keep reading magazines, thinking about fit, and getting the work out there. Hard work and persistence are under your control but the rest is “Crass Casualty,” as Thomas Hardy might say if he were blogging about the po-biz.

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