Writing and publishing poetry book reviews

I’m gearing up for a virtual weekend at the World Fantasy Convention, where I’ll give a Friday night reading as well as speaking on a panel about “The Weirder Side of the Fantastic,” both organized by the indefatigable, resourceful, generous writer Anya Martin. I’ll post about that next week, barring apocalypse, but in the meantime I’m thinking about what’s weird and fantastic about poetry reviews.

The WHY of reviewing is probably obvious. Most poetry books don’t get much love, so you serve writers, presses, and readers by bringing your favorites to wider attention. Every poet with means and time should give public service to the art they love, and reviewing is one way to do it (panel/ event organizing like Anya’s is another). Generosity occasionally pays off–if people appreciate you, they may help you in some future, unexpected way–and any byline can increase your name recognition. That’s not the core reason for literary service, though. Fandom is at the heart of it, plus desire to strengthen a fragile community. If you write a thoughtful review, you’ve shown the author they have at least one good reader out there. It makes all parties feel glowy.

Love of poetry isn’t all a reviewer needs, though. I’ve written a ton of criticism, so I’m a faster writer than many, but reviewing a poetry book is still an eight-hour commitment, more or less. I read the book once; put it down and think about it; reread it and start drafting; then take a break from the draft for a day, or a few days, and come back, rewrite, and polish. They’re typically 750-1500 words. Writing micro-reviews (250-300 words) is quicker, but I always end up writing long then boiling them down, a process that takes time, too.

Although I don’t always have the hours, I like reviewing a lot. It feels freeing to analyze a book without scholarly protocols. No bibliography, no citing Very Important Theorists! I’m trying to write a few reviews this year because I’m on sabbatical, grateful for good notices my books are receiving, and, at this bad moment, having a hard time concentrating on big stuff. Writing a poetry review is a way of procrastinating while still putting some useful writing out there.

The first thing to do if you want to write reviews is read a bunch of them and decide what you like and don’t like about them, ideally comparing published reviews to collections you’ve read. I personally find real-world models more revealing than instructions, but here’s how I approach the actual writing:

  • My first time through the book, I note striking lines and poems, trying to get a handle on the book’s through-lines. What’s at stake for the author? What are their strategies for exploring central themes and questions? You’re not writing a five-paragraph theme for English class, but you need an angle of interpretation.
  • In addition to an angle, I need a hook, some interesting remark or example to begin with. I’m always happy to read reviews that have an autobiographical entry-point (“I read this at a crisis point and this is what it meant to me”), but there are endless possibilities. Keep in mind that the review should be centered around the book itself, though, more than on you as a reader.
  • Type out favorite quotes as you take notes. It’s usual for a review to include many brief quotes as well as one or two in the 6-12 line range (micros excepted).
  • Increasingly, I make sure there are a couple of punchy sentences of praise in the review that the writer can excerpt. It’s fine to remark on problems or shortcomings, but I wouldn’t want to spend writing time on a book I didn’t like unless possibly, hypothetically, an incredibly popular poetry book was doing actual damage in the world. (But this is poetry. Not likely.)
  • As I revise, I think about the big picture. No review can cover every interesting aspect of a book, but it doesn’t seem right to get so obsessed with one element that you don’t convey an accurate portrait. Someone who reads a review might be thinking, “should I buy/ borrow this one?” They deserve to know whether a book is really what they want or need to read, because there are many good choices out there.
  • Writers should always try to be interesting in clear sentences, logically organized. I try to write reviews well. I don’t put them through the dozens of revisions a creative piece needs, though. Speed matters.
  • A note on multi-book reviews: I haven’t done many of these because the places I’ve written for steer away from them. But similar considerations apply: you need a hook and an angle. You also need interesting hinge-sentences (more substantive than “another interesting new book is”). I read this recent one by Rose Solari closely because she includes my book The State She’s In, but she’s got a strong angle–“Grief, Grace, and Anger” in books by women–and she she does a good job with linking/ contrasting.
  • On a related note: there IS a politics to reviewing. It’s good to review books you admire, but try, sometimes, for books that stretch you or make you uncomfortable; I always learn from those encounters. Pay attention, over time, to whose books you celebrate. I will always feel pulled to writing by people who identify as women, many of whom get less attention than less talented men, but spending time with work by writers whose experiences are different than mine feels REALLY important, too. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and writers with disabilities deserve extra love in the current hellscape.

It’s helpful to have a target venue or two before you write so you can check on their rules including preferred length, when their review submission period is open, and formatting questions. To find appropriate ones, I check out where the author has published before as well as querying places whose reviews I generally admire. (Some writers mainly review for one publication; I hop around.) Some considerations:

  • If you’re new to reviewing, consider starting with a less-fancy venue, but always try to do a bang-up job. When you have a published example or two, you can use them as sample clips to query prestigious places, because why not? Here is a list of outlets, big and small, from Poets & Writers.
  • That said, it is totally reasonable to hold out for gigs that PAY the reviewer, although you might need a clip or two from a non-paying venue to start with. The $50 Kenyon Review just sent me for reviewing Anna Maria Hong’s Fablesque isn’t a good hourly wage, and money isn’t what I did it for, but it’s nice! (I just donated it to a Philadelphia bailout fund after another police shooting of a Black man there followed by protests and arrests. Hellscape.)
  • Some magazines want you to query first, others ask you to submit finished reviews, and still other editors prefer to assign books to reviewers themselves. Also, some venues will only print a review within six months of book publication, so get ARCs and/or work fast. I’m reviewing for Harvard Review right now after querying them with clips, and the editor had the presses send me books directly. You can also personally request ARCs from the publisher (the marketing department, if they have one) or from the author.
  • Some journals are sticklers about there being NO relationship between reviewer and author. I get the ethics of that, but I find it impractical because the poetry world is small. You get to know people who share your interests, especially if you’ve been going to conferences and festivals for a while. If you’re already very good friends with the writer, though, it’s often better to help them with publicity in other ways, like posting Goodreads reviews or retweeting their announcements.

Whether reviewing can be part of your life right now or not, I hope you’re hanging in there. I’m struggling to stay sane, but it was nice to see the Fablesque review come to fruition, as well as a short interview about editing/ submitting with Frontier Poetry and the announcement of a prize I judged for Talking Writing–the winner is B. Tyler Lee, whose work is new to me but whose essay was riveting and moving (it was a well-run contest, by the way–thoroughly anonymous). I gave a fun reading via my college library yesterday that was widely attended by students, colleagues, far-flung friends, and alumni–that was a treat. Finally, I just received my copy of an essay collection called Deep Beauty and I’m really enjoying the many wonderful, surprising, and often uplifting essays bumping shoulders with my own. May your days be full of small good things, and may we soon be smiling over a landslide election.

Looking off cliffs

I’m not processing very well, here at the quiet edge of apocalypse. Sometimes I’m fine, scared, down, or stir-crazy; often I’m busy teaching remotely, being fortunate enough to still have a job; generally I can’t concentrate. New York City has always been the center of the world for me; how will it fare? When will everyone have access to testing, so we know the scope of things? A few steps from now, what will happen?

I wonder, too, what art is in the pipelines now, and to what extent those pipelines are or will be blocked. My novel, Unbecoming, was available for pre-order for a hot second and scheduled for publication on May 1, but now that’s been postponed. My publishers are in Washington State and can’t safely mail out copies, and one of their key distribution warehouses is not accepting shipments anymore. I hope the book is for sale in time for my reading dates this summer, but who knows how much we’ll be traveling and congregating then anyway? One nice augury, anyway: it just earned a star and a lovely review from Publishers Weekly. At least one stranger likes it! That’s more of a relief to me than you might expect. A debut work in any field–who can really judge her own writing, at first venture?

Many have told me that the novel will do better at a later date, anyway; apparently the brilliant Margot Livesey launched a book on 9/11/01, a day of crisis for all kinds of art, and I heard from many people that nobody bought books right after Trump’s election. I am also relieved to focus for longer on the virtual launch of The State She’s In, my fifth poetry collection (also languishing in a locked down warehouse, although copies are available directly from my saintly publisher, at least for now–this has me suspecting that a ton of books from independent presses must be similarly stranded). People have been generous about helping me publicize it over social media and otherwise, although general sadness has put me behind on sending in the recordings people have asked for. Here’s an interview Will Woolfitt posted on his terrific Speaking of Marvels blog. And I’m going to keep paying poetry back by putting up virtual poetry salons, although with the term in gear again, I might be slower.

The picture above is from last Saturday’s drive to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains, where we’re trying to take walks most weekends to watch spring’s advance. It’s beautiful out there in a way that seems bizarre and reassuring in turns. The photo below is of three new anthologies I’m fortunate enough to have a poem in–all of them terrific and all of them coming out, as my own books are, at a pretty difficult moment. Here’s a shout out, then, to Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, edited by Annie Finch; Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habit, Defiance, and Democracy, edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield; and Rocked by the Waters: Poems of Motherhood, edited by Margaret Hasse and Athena Kildegaard. The Tables of Contents of all three brim with the names of the writers I admire most, and all bring together immensely powerful and moving work. Having work in them is good company. I’m also proud to have an essay on Millay’s abortions, “The Smell of Tansy through the Dark,” in the latest Massachussetts Review. I’ve talked to several editors of print magazines who were rushing to send off spring issues before their university mail services ground to a halt, and I’m so glad this one made it. I wonder how the publishing landscape may change for them and others. One good thing: Ecotone’s most recent issues, a couple of which I have poems in, are temporarily free online. What a gift to the housebound!

I am writing a bit for National Poetry Month, without confidence that I’m producing anything lasting, although I’m not able to get myself together to mail recent work out. And for Shenandoah, I’m reading the 650 batches of poems that came in during our 2-week March reading period (holy cow). My first read is usually a quick-ish screen to winnow the submissions down to likely top contenders, and I’m only halfway through that; it’s going to take a while. Looking off the edge of this April, though, I feel confident that Shenandoah WILL keep bringing you great art. So many collaborative artistic productions are stalled now, but writing is cheap and lonely, any season. We’re all going to go through weeks of blockage and flow, I guess, but you can’t stop poetry.

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.

Rusting robot poetics

Lots of stress on this bucket of bolts lately–family, health, and writing-related–but I’m tickled to report that my first poetry comic has been published by the gorgeously-redesigned Split Lip Magazine. My spouse Chris Gavaler and I created it a couple of years ago; he made the images and I wrote the words, although there was some cross-influence in revision, more or less as we’ve cross-influenced each other in life (“Go for it!”/ “Don’t wear that!”). To me, this comic is about a pretty-long-running partnership from a midlife perspective, very much inflected by the self-reassessment that happens when your kids grow up and move on (my daughter graduated in May and just returned home after a summer gig, and my son starts college in about 10 days). We’ve changed so much since we were undergrads together, and I love the way the images capture our disintegrations and haphazard rebuildings from odd materials at hand, bringing forward the idea of resourcefulness under constraint. Chris built these robots rather laboriously in an outmoded program; my constraints were spatial, meaning seven lines per poem, with the line-length controlled by panel-width and the letters of Chris’ homemade font. It’s so gratifying when you make something weird in a weird way, for fun, and other people like it enough to publish it!

Not much other luck in that department lately. Rejections are flying; I haven’t had a poem accepted in months. As I’ve said here before, though, I actually feel more philosophical about that since beginning to work on Shenandoah. You just have to keep trying, revising and targeting your work as intelligently as you can, but knowing there’s a heap of luck involved. Submission rates are very high, and chances of hitting the right reader in the right way at the right moment are low, so it’s a numbers game. I did some poetry revision/ submission work this week, though, and I’ll keep at it until the semester swallows me whole–I’ve also got essays to tweak and keep in circulation plus a difficult grant application to finish. The meetings and new-tech-training-sessions, all that late summer jazz, starts tomorrow.

I’m also sighing, but philosophical, about the timing of book edits. I’d hoped to have feedback in hand on two mss–or at least one of them–by early August so I could do at least some of the work before the term starts, and that no longer seems likely. Editors are heroes, and like me they have chaotic lives–so be it. There’s still a TON to do without waiting on anyone else, not least preparing my courses, finishing those submissions, and organizing all the book promotion work I have ahead of me during this very busy school year.

In the midst of all this, I followed a link yesterday to a powerful article in n+1 called “Sexism in the Academy.” ” Depending on the funding agency, the gender gap in winning grants is about 7 percent,” Troy Vettise writes in this heavily-researched and very persuasive piece, adding, “when women are successful in their grant applications, they usually receive less funding, about eighty cents to a man’s dollar.” Talk about constraints! Discouraging, but I was grateful for all the work Vettise pulls together here, documenting everything from discrimination in resources to the costs of harassment, and more. And the recommendations at the end are provocative in an exhilarating way, including radical structural changes to universities and foundations.

Our robot comic is, I think, also about ambivalence toward gender roles, both in Chris and in me. It’s hard to be your best self and do your best work with all the gender shrapnel flying–as if teaching and writing aren’t hard enough.

Well, “keep your skin on,” as the robots say. There’s change ahead, good and bad. My visor may be foggy, and my sensors all scratched up, but I just have to be a self-reconfiguring modular robot, slipping free of my programming and adapting to my own increasingly buggy hardware as well as the unpredictable terrain. I can do it. Right?

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.”

A mouth of purple crocus

One of the first sonnets I wrote, as an undergraduate, contained the lines: “A mouth of purple crocus opens through/ the snow, wild to speak the store beneath. / It carries coin.” I don’t remember the rest, although the poem is probably in a bin in the attic somewhere. The lines have been running through my head all week as the weather flips from warmish to snowy to springlike again. March is always a crazy month in my academic calendar, but I am ready for the madness, as long as it brings me color!

Elements of recent frenzy: I injured my right knee a week ago (I don’t know how) and my mobility has been limited; now that knee is improving but I’m realizing there’s background noise of inflammation and low-grade pain that I need to figure out and deal with. My son is at the state chess tournament in Charlottesville this weekend, which meant extra driving, although I’m happy for him. This afternoon’s report is that he played really well. Even though his rating is finally high enough that he was required to play in the championship division–meaning basically everyone he matched with was higher-rated, many of them drastically–he won half his games. And my daughter drove down yesterday for spring break, and it’s her birthday tomorrow. AND Aimee Nezhukumatathil was due to arrive yesterday for the second part of her residency, and got grounded overnight in Memphis, so we’ve been scrambling to rearrange things. That’s all on top of the usual busy-ness of the teaching year, plus trying to resolve all Shenandoah poetry submissions from the reading period that recently closed, plus hitting the crux of the AWP search for a permanent executive director (I’m off the AWP board, but on this committee), plus being stern with myself about carving out time for novel revisions (minimum of an hour 3x/ week).

All this means a lot of juggling, but except for the joint/ mobility problems–and the pain of rejecting good poems, because Shenandoah gets SO MANY GOOD POEMS–I’m feeling optimistic. Put that little spark of good feeling against a big gray landscape–the treatment of refugees at our borders looms large for me, as well as the worsening environmental crisis–and a bunch of purple crocus isn’t worth much, I know. But I’ll take it.

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…

Collaboration

Lone wolf humanist here to tell you that while reading and writing in solitude are some of my favorite things, experiences with intellectual and artistic collaboration have astonished me, shaking loose all kinds of work and thinking I might never have otherwise produced. As poets

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Merrill and Jackson: collaborators on a seance-based epic?

Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton say in this great piece–which ends with the “10 Commandments of Collaboration”–working with another person can produce a “third voice” likely to surprise its parents. Yes, teamwork can slow down or intensify the labor, a big problem if you’re on a tenure clock or your collaborator’s literary metabolism differs radically from yours. I’ve also seen it speed and improve work in various genres. Writing can beget more writing.

That’s why, for the early-summer edition of my Modernism/ Modernity blog on the writing process, I’m seeking short reflections from scholars, editors, teachers, students, and artists about collaboration, in hopes that a collection of perspectives will shake good work loose from other writers, too. I sent out an email to some modernist scholars who collaborate, but I’d like to hear from people outside my network, so if you have something to say, please contact me! You can post replies here or email them to wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu, but I need responses by May 15th. The assignment:

  1. Choose one of the following prompts, or ask your own collaboration-related question, and send me an answer of under 200 words, along with a bio of 1-2 sentences.
  • How has collaboration changed your writing, your thinking, and/or the direction of your professional life?
  • What advice do you have for people considering a collaborative venture?

You can write this with a collaborator, if you want, or try a two-way interview. Just please keep it short and sweet. Alternately:

  1. Forward this to a friend or collaborator and ask him or her to write a reflection on one of these questions, or on another question you’d rather ask. It can be submitted directly to me, with a bio.

I’m looking for collaborators on modernism-related projects, but you can define that however you like. Collaborations in teaching as well as research, editing, and writing are absolutely fair game, as are student responses. Cautionary tales as well as positive stories are welcome—collaboration can be a complicated endeavor. (One of my first co-authors was my spouse, Chris Gavaler, on an article about H.D. for Sagetrieb, and we did a lot of anxious joking at the time about how commas were posing a marital problem.) My goal is to put together a June blog for the Modernism/ Modernity Print-Plus platform in many voices, with diverging perspectives. You can see the inaugural “process” blog post here, if curious.

lettersI could describe lots of other projects here, because I’ve been experimenting for a while now. Editing Letters to the World with a team of women I’d never met was a huge, at times stressful project with a beautiful result. I also love revisiting these poems I composed with Scott Nicolay in an email-based game of oneuppoetship. Last but not least, every class discussion is a collaboration, as we argue our way towards a joint reading of whatever text is to hand.

But I’d rather hear from you.

Poetic housekeeping

The main piece of housekeeping wisdom my mother passed down to me was just make it LOOK clean. If the counter is wiped down, people will admire your kitchen. They’ll never know about the dust under the fridge or even see the crumbs on the floor. Was the family home immaculate? Rarely. Did the below-eye-level debris matter? Not at all.

That advice from a stay-at-home mom adapted pretty well to the life of a mother with a sixty-hour-a-week job, although when the appliance repair guy pulls out the fridge and uncovers some unholy dustscape, I do wince in anticipation of that look: what kind of woman are you, sitting around in sweatpants with piles of books, when THIS is growing HERE? Not that I feel guilty; it just annoys me to suffer raised eyebrows when I don’t have time to make speeches about gendered divisions of labor. I take Chris as a role model, since, in his focus on writing, he is completely impervious to looks the neighbors probably give him about our raggedy yard and the dire lichen blossoming on our siding.

The same principle converts fine to most kinds of work. At home, if the kids are thriving, it doesn’t matter if the weeds are, too. Likewise, at the office, if you’re giving students and colleagues the help they really need, you can leave certain emails to rot; you just have to be clear in your priorities and thoughtful about whether a small task completed now will matter enormously to someone later, or whether it’s really, genuinely small after all.

But what about writing? Scholarship is supposed to be meticulous. A small error now can be quoted and requoted twenty times, distorting arguments made decades later. Yet pore-over-every-source perfectionists may get scooped or never see publication at all, because research is endless, like housekeeping. Once you’ve scoured the whole field, dust is already gathering in the room where you started–there’s always a new angle, or an overlooked one, to worry about. At some point, you just have to say good enough and cross your fingers that the inevitable crumb on the floor stays invisible.

I have made mistakes in print. Blogging and social media make error even more likely–no editors, little time for patient scrubbing. I remind myself I’m not a surgeon–my slips usually cost someone proper credit for his or her hard work, not life and limb–but it still feels bad, as it should, I guess.

This season, as I’m delivering a new poetry book to the world, I realize I’m more fastidious about verse than any other kind of writing. A poem’s room is so little–nowhere for the trash to hide. I also know I can take my time with a poem. Unlike an article, whose reference list quickly spoils, a good poem has a long shelf-life.

Appropriately enough given today’s metaphor, my reflections on editing Radioland appear as a “House Guest” feature this week on Ecotone‘s blog. I’m still not sure if I got everything right in my new collection–my other books have flaws, although I refuse to name them here–but I worked on it word by word, comma by comma, at least as scrupulously as on any project I’ve ever undertaken. Go ahead, run your white gloves all over it and tell me what you find.

And, of course, I had tons of help; my acknowledgements page doesn’t cover the half of it. In addition to everyone named in the book itself, Mary Giaimo does meticulous copy-editing for Barrow Street Press. Sarah Kruse is laboring hard to fulfill orders and help publicity. IMG_1688 (1)Still further behind the scenes, many, many magazine editors made the poems better. (And on that note, hurrah for editors everywhere! I am delighted to have new poems lately in Eleven Eleven and the sci-fi issue of New Orleans Review.)

This week I hit pause on my critical project to complete some more invisible housekeeping. Some of it is unpaid work for others–reviewing articles and promotion files, writing references, and learning how to be a trustee for the AWP (did I mention I’m now Mid-Atlantic Council Chair?–yikes). For my own poetry’s sake, I’m working on a radio essay, with help from W&L people, and who knows if it will ever hit the airwaves? I’m sending out review copies, applying to festivals, and nominating myself for prizes. Most of that work won’t make any difference at all, it’s costly in time and money, and–let me show you behind the oven here–all the self-promotion gets kind of embarrassing.

But, well, hell, let the lichen grow all over the house and the dust bunnies fatten. Boosting the signal for Radioland–that’s high priority. And I am beyond grateful to everyone who has helped, or is helping now, by buying the book, ordering a copy for their library, reviewing it, teaching it, secretly plotting to invite me to read from it, or whatever else you’re doing for poetry rather than wipe out the kitchen cupboards. Seriously, nobody looks in there.

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.