Screening Shenandoah submissions

It’s the last week of classes! I’m participating in what will be a brilliant reading at 4:30 today (in Hillel on W&L’s campus), from the beautiful Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia! And can I say it again?–this intense term is nearly DONE!

In corners of time, I’m also screening poems for Shenandoah, both for the fall 2020 issue and for the Graybeal-Gowan Prize for Virginia writers (both categories get equal consideration for publication). I thought it might be useful for some people to know what that process looks like, and I understand it better myself than I did a year ago, when I was just beginning my tenure as poetry editor.

I log on to Submittable for a 20-30 minute block on most days during the submission month (this time, Nov 15-Dec 15) and do a quick screening, marking each new batch yes, maybe, no. The majority of subs are “maybe”: I can see some great language going on but I’m not ready to make a decision. “No” is for the poems that clearly don’t fit what Shenandoah is all about–the poems we want involve powerful material, skillfully treated. If a first reading reveals a lot of cliche, ineffective linebreaks, and a high level of predictability, I just can’t spend a lot of time on it (we’ve already received more than 600 batches of poems and I have a time-consuming OTHER job, with no course releases or extra money for this editorial labor of love). “Yes” is vanishingly rare this early in the reading period, but occasionally a poem grabs me by the throat. In that case, I wait a day or two, reread, and then ask Editor-In-Chief Beth Staples what she thinks. If we both agree that it would be tragic if some other magazine scooped the poem(s) up, I accept the work right off. I don’t accept ANYTHING without Beth’s agreement. Usually we’re on the same page, but occasionally we disagree, and then both of us have to consider: “do I need to fight for this one?”

Final decisions on all those maybes will happen by sometime in January, as well as selection of the Graybeal-Gowan winner (by both me and Beth–hiring an outside judge would decrease the prize amount so we decided against). I might write individualized rejection to poets who came close, but mostly a work-study student rejects what I’ve marked as a “no,” using a form letter.

Some things I like:

  • Amazing poems! I love editing because I get to bruit terrific poetry.
  • When the poet takes the time to address us by name and mention something they liked in a recent issue (although I try not to read the letter before the poems, the way the Submittable screen works means I sometimes catch phrases before clicking on the attachment).
  • Professionally formatted subs, with one poem per page in a single file and an easy-to-read font. This whole bullet point is relatively trivial, but if you’re really anxious to make every little detail play in your favor, most editors, I think, have a (sometimes unconscious) preference for serif fonts. I am less fussy than many; I really don’t care which one. Shenandoah‘s font is Minion.

Some things I don’t like:

  • Turning down poems I really like. I still have regrets about work I rejected last year, in fact. But 800+ batches of poems, 15 spots…the math just means good work slips away.
  • Separate submission of every poem–too many clicks! Also, submitting multiple times in a single period without being asked to do so will get you rejected unread.
  • Submission of fiction/ nonfiction during a poetry-only period. That’s a jerk move that means extra work for Beth when she’s busy trying to finalize the new issue (debuting this Friday!).
  • Cover letters that begin with an insult to the submission guidelines or the magazine itself. You’d be surprised.
  • Poems including racist, sexist, or other dehumanizing language, or otherwise displaying prejudice against groups of people. Again, you’d be surprised.
  • This is more trivia, but I haven’t yet liked a poem that’s centered on the page or in a goofy font. I’m open, too, to reading work by teenagers, but in almost every case it just isn’t skilled enough yet. Let your work cook longer before hitting send. Poetry keeps.
  • That I don’t have time to write more personal rejections. Honestly.

A view from the masthead

I read Beth Staples’ Editor’s Note to the new issue of Shenandoah aloud, in the car, from my phone. Chris and I were on our way to a poetry reading by Sara Robinson, Patsy Asuncion, and others at Ragged Branch Distillery–a gorgeous setting–while sun and clouds chased each other across the mountains. We had read an earlier draft of Beth’s essay, which was prompted by a piece of hate mail:

She nailed the revision, we agreed, and then argued about which was the funniest line in the piece. “From a person with questionable taste in fonts,” Chris insisted. No, it’s her rewrite of the opening of Pride and Prejudice, I countered. In any case, Beth’s remarks are important, reflecting questions I often think about while reading submissions AND reading for fun. In much contemporary fiction by white authors, nonwhite characters are typically described by race, while white characters get to be defined by other characteristics, like status or occupation or temperament–which makes me sputter with irritation when I want to be lounging with a paperback.

In verse, how a white author addresses, or sidesteps, whiteness comes through more clearly over a suite of pieces than in a single poem, mostly because a poem contains fewer words and less story than your average prose piece. A poem gives you select glimpses from which you intuit and imagine a landscape. Race, therefore, is sometimes a matter of hints and absences in the poems from this Shenandoah issue. I love them all, and I delight in the ways they refract different identities and experiences: 68.2 contains poetry about language, immigration, aging, abortion, artificial insemination, difficult parents, difficult children, difficult neighbors, food, friendship, nonhuman animals, love, anger, political treaties, sexual harassment, disability, music, apocalypse, and clowns. Race joins that heady mix, but mostly in poems by authors who are not white–and that’s something an editor, and an author, must think about.

Books of mine currently in the publication pipeline–especially a novel and my next poetry collection–DO concern whiteness. In early drafts of these works, I made mistakes, because my skill and thoughtfulness were inadequate. Many editors rejected many of those efforts–rightly, I now believe, although it was discouraging at the time. Writing about race in a contemporary or historical way, from the perspective of a white person who hasn’t always been required to pay attention to it, was/ is risky, and I’m not sure the products are thoroughly successful–I’m worried there are failures in the books I can’t yet see, and really hoping, if so, that my editors will call me out–but in any case, I did learn some things and end up with at least some good writing. I decided I’d rather fail by trying than by silence.

So I especially appreciate Beth’s Editor’s Note. If you find it provocative and/ or useful, also check out the “Gutting the Chicken” feature, about a flash fiction piece by Stephen Graham Jones that was initially rejected. The editors focused on gender questions the piece raised and missed some things about race, and I would say the author did something similar but in reverse, although all parties are brilliant and careful (I think Jones’ work is amazing). The intro, flash fiction, and accompanying interview would be a great suite to teach, raising some pretty interesting editorial and writerly conundrums.

But every piece in the issue is worth reading! I’m particularly excited about the novel excerpt (and eager for Joukhadar’s book–he’ll give a reading here in February). Don’t miss the special features at the bottom of the page, either, which are full of their own insights and challenges. I’m happy, heading into summer, that there’s so much cool stuff to read, even (or especially?) when it makes me uncomfortable–as long as the author doesn’t address me as “girl.”

Teaching from online magazines

Fall term is over except for the grading, and THANK GOD: I had terrific students but a lot of them, and I really had to drag myself over the finish line. But winter term starts early here–January 7th!–and it will also be a busy one, so one of my tasks over the next few weeks is to finalize syllabi for two courses. One is “Protest Poetry,” which starts with the Civil Rights era, moves through Standing Rock and ecopoetry, and ends with independent projects: students have to identify their own causes, find some public way poetry can serve them, enact their plans, then write reflective essays. The other is a multigenre introductory creative writing course, moving from flash memoir to poetry. I’ve never taught either before so, yikes.

Even as this term’s portfolios and papers come snowing down and I organize next term’s particulars, however, I’m trying to bask in another grand finale: the re-launch of ShenandoahIt’s stunning how much Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples has accomplished since she started in August: the dated-looking website has been radically redesigned on a new server, but most importantly she recruited exciting new work–a few pieces by distinguished writers who’d appeared in the magazine under R. T. Smith’s editorship, but many, many others from writers who might not have considered sending to us before, so that the issue is more inclusive than ever along every possible axis. I say “us” because Beth, who has a collaborative spirit, included her new colleagues as volunteer readers from the beginning, and by mid-fall had appointed several of us as genre editors, including Seth Michelson for translation, Chris Gavaler for comics, and me for poetry. I didn’t read every entry or make every call on acceptance or rejection in my genre, and that will be true of the next issue as well (towards which a lot of work has already been accepted) but I did read thousands of pieces (and am still processing the last few from our fall reading period).

So, OF COURSE I’ll be teaching poems from the new issue next term. My syllabi always include plenty of books on paper; I love print as a medium. But a digital issue can be a great addition to the mix: free, ultra-contemporary, and diversifying a reading list in interesting ways. Below are some thoughts about how to use the poetry section of 68.1, or an online journal generally.

Reading assignment for any group of poems:

Read all the first lines/sentences. Which do you like best and why? Now read all the poems. Does your favorite first line belong to your favorite piece? Why or why not? (This is a good exercise for creative writing students getting a handle on craft.)

Or: identify three strategies at play in these poems that you might want to try yourself and discuss how they work. (In this issue, for instance, there are prose poems, free verse in various arrangements, a persona poem, an ode, and an erasure–check out the erased/ unerased text toggle on “Ethos of I C E”! There are also poems in numbered sections; unconventional uses of punctuation, capitalization, spacing, and abbreviations; elegies, anti-elegies, and riffs on obituaries; and a wide variety of allusions.)

A response paper topic I’ll use for Protest Poetry: Now that we’ve talked about whether or not poems can be “useful,” choose a couple of poems from this issue and write about what potential work they might do for a reader or a community of readers. Which help you think about a problem or an institution in a different way? Did any of them alter your mood or spur you to do additional research into a topic? Which might work best at a rally, in a waiting room pamphlet, on a poster, in a valentine card?

More ways to teach these specific poems:

If you’re teaching elegy: try Patrick Kindig; both poems by Victoria Chang; the poems by John Lee Clark; Janet McAdams’ “Thanatoptic.” On a related note, Hai-Dang Phan’s poem would pair well with Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and other poems about monuments–it’s also very much an eco-poem that situates the human dead amid “veteran elms” and other representatives of the more-than-human world.

If you’re teaching poetry and place: “Yes Yes Dakar, 2018”; both Brandon Melendez poems; Jessica Guzman Alderman’s “Florida Orange”; “Meeting House at Cill Rialaig”; and maybe most of the others, because place, like sex and death and memory, is one of poetry’s big subjects.

Poetry about family: Dujie Tahat’s “Ode to the Golden Hour on the Day of Finalizing My Divorce”; either “Obit”; “After the Wedding”; Kathleen Winter; plus one for holiday dysfunction by Alicia Mountain.

The John Lee Clark poems would also fit into readings about disability, as would Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block,” which adds contemporary politics to the mix, and the question of how we write when our bodies force reconsideration of our ambitions and oh, that’s right, the world’s in flames.

There are countless ways to teach complicated poems, however, and all these are complicated in beautiful ways. I’d love to hear your ideas. In the meantime, hey, just spending an afternoon READING the work is a lovely thing…And hey, if you’re on Twitter, please follow us at @ShenandoahWLU. Some long-ago intern set up the old account, @ShenandoahLit, and we no longer have full access to it, so we’re rebuilding on social media as well as everywhere else. Lots of work to do!shenandoah

 

On first looking into Shenandoah’s submissions

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.

poe books
Poe with books I really want to read, but subs are calling me…

Flagging

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In the screenshot above, a racist organization celebrates my university president. It’s been quite a week.

Backstory: in August 2017, as neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, W&L’s then-new president set up a Commission on Institutional History and Community to study how we teach and represent our history here. “Here” is Washington and Lee, a highly selective liberal arts college with a law school attached, named after one of our early benefactors, George Washington, and another university president, Robert E. Lee, who held that role for five years after the end of the Civil War. The violence and hate displayed in Charlottesville is relevant to W&L not only because of proximity, but because our campus and small town  have been strongly shaped by white supremacy. Three buildings on campus are named for Lee–who for 150 years has been the focus of Lost Cause nostalgia–as well as a city street, a nearby highway, a church (until very recently), and lord knows how many other institutions I’m repressing memory of. The Confederate general is buried on campus and his right-hand man, Stonewall Jackson, is buried in town. Confederate reenactors regularly march down Main St. and pool in sullen groups at intersections, protesting local resistance to displaying Confederate battle flags on city flagpoles. The KKK periodically leaflets the neighborhood, soliciting membership. Ground zero for much of this is our college chapel–Lee Chapel, of course–which is full of Lost Cause memorabilia and sits atop the Lee family crypt. If you think these conjunctions are terrifying, eye-rollingly stupid, offensive, pernicious, a tempting target for more neo-Nazi rallies: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

In May 2018, the Commission issued a long report recommending many changes, some of which involve altering the role of the chapel in university life; renaming buildings and changing the balance of what’s memorialized; and correcting myths to present a far more complex picture of Lee. After 24 years of being upset by the way W&L presents Lee, I appreciated much of the straight talk in the report, although I know plenty of people who didn’t think it went far enough. The Commission included stakeholders from many generations, backgrounds, and political persuasions, so its consensus surprised me and gave me a little bit of wary hope.

Well, the president just issued a response that started the flaggers cheering (and presumably plenty of deep-pocketed conservative older alums, too). Basically, he was very specific about keeping intact the tradition of whitewashing Lee, and very vague about how other report recommendations might one day, possibly, very quietly be partially adopted. I’m not surprised, but like all the other professors I’ve been talking to, I’m sad and disappointed. What a waste of momentum towards change. What a way, too, to disrespect an already demoralized teaching community. I feel particularly bad for colleagues and students who put hundreds of hours of work into the commission, many of which involved fielding bile from enraged right-wingers, who are invariably louder than anyone with a moderate or left-of-center perspective.

Am I angry? Not really; too tired. I am mad at myself for signing up to moderate diversity discussions during first-year orientation, which will add up to 10-12 hours of unpaid labor, some of them over this “holiday” weekend. Why volunteer to facilitate those conversations when the larger organization won’t support the values behind them? I am worried about the students, though–the first-years moving in this morning as well as my returning students and advisees. I want everyone to feel welcomed, supported, and able to be full participants in the intellectual and artistic community we try to foster. I know many students who felt disenfranchised and demoralized last year; I’m afraid the president’s letter just made things much worse. What DOES seem utterly worthwhile, and what I’ll try to keep my focus on, is continuing to give students what help I can in my classrooms and office hours. Aside from the extra dose of complicity in white supremacy (!!!), I like teaching here a great deal: small classes, great resources, talented students, talented colleagues. It’s not the worst corner a poet can get backed into.

Plus, in meetings yesterday, I saw a revolutionary glimmer in some colleagues’ eyes. Roanoke College professor and general education expert Paul Hanstedt was leading an outstanding workshop on general education and I think the hard-core university citizens in the room were realizing: maybe donors will win all the debates about names, statues, and institutional rhetoric. But the FACULTY is in charge of the curriculum. We can make CHANGES that COUNT.

In the meantime, I loaded some extra protest poetry into fall syllabi. More on poetry teaching soon, and on reading poetry for Shenandoah, which, it turns out, I LOVE–it’s so much fun to read new work pouring in. W&L’s distinguished literary magazine, currently being redesigned by a new Editor in Chief, Beth Staples, is open for submissions now, all genres, no cost to submit, and if you’re accepted, it pays actual money! We’ll do good work with W&L’s resources yet.

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