Monthly Archives: January 2015

Five Things I’ve Learned as a Poetry Editor

In May of last year I started working on the Mud Season Review, a new online (and soon coming out with our first print edition!) journal. The journal is an outgrowth of the Burlington Writer’s Workshop, itself a fantastic community resource for writers here in my new homeland. The journal strives to bring some of the workshop’s sense of writers supporting and in dialogue with each other into the literary journal format, and I’m super-proud of what we’re doing.

I started out as one of two Assistant Poetry Editors, responsible for reviewing what’s passed on by our readers, and then participating with the senior editors in their final decision process. Through various perambulations, I’ve now become a poetry Co-Editor. Having spent a lot of the past few years on the “submitting” side of the process, it’s fascinating to now be on the other end, and I wanted to pass on a few key things I’ve learned to my fellow submitting poets out there:

1. It is such a high-volume business, rejections don’t (necessarily) mean you’re bad: I get discouraged by my literary rejections sometimes, for sure. And I knew, intellectually, what the numbers were like. But now, from the other side, I really appreciate it. In the six months since we started, we’ve had around 570 poetry submissions, usually of 3-5 poems each. And we’ve put out five online editions so far, with maybe 5 poems in each. Math tells me that (5*5)/(3*570)= 25/1,710= 1.47%. The numbers for Mud Season Review are not atypical-many journals publish more pieces, but they also get more submissions per issue. In other words, your poem could be in the top 2% of submissions an editor is receiving and still not make the cut-off of what they have room to publish.

2. You need to bring your best work-every detail matters: See above- given that you can be in the top 2% of what a journal receives and still miss the cutoff, what you submit needs to be your very, very best. Send your favorite poems, not your “maybe this will work”. First (or even second or third) drafts probably won’t get you there. That misspelling that you missed, or awkward line that you know doesn’t quite work, but it probably doesn’t matter? It might. Knowing this now has actually sharply re-focused me on the quality of submissions I send out.

3. Form is really important: By which I mean the physical form of the poem. Having read literally hundreds of poems every month, I’ve noticed that one of the primary things that can throw me off is the format of the poem. Even if I really like the poet’s voice, and am intrigued by the content and appreciate the imagery, word choice, etc., a physically difficult format can keep me from connecting with it. Things like line breaks, regularity of structure (even if the structure itself is unorthodox, does it at least have internal consistency in how it’s working?), and spacing or other devices to keep the flow of reading going make a big difference. Again, knowing this leaves me chastened about some of my submissions over the years, and has got me thinking about how I can improve.  

4. Your cover letter probably doesn’t matter, so don’t spend too much time on it: We use Submittable, which separates out the content (i.e. the poems) from the personal note or cover letter that accompanies them. So as not to prejudice my reading, I usually don’t look at the letters until after I’ve read, ranked and made my comments for the team. Talking with the other editors, they generally do the same. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate a good cover letter, but it’s not going to influence my read, so it shouldn’t be a major focus of your time and effort. Short and sincere will probably more than do.

5. There are a lot of really good poets out there: Since I wasn’t a first-line Reader, I didn’t read all of those 1,700 poems myself. But I did read a significant number of them, and it turns out there are a lot of really good poets out there. And they aren’t necessarily the established poets. I won’t name names, but I have often appreciated the work of new or lightly-published poets over people with impressive-looking credentials. Since it is such a numbers game (see #1 above), you may need to submit a lot to get your work out there. But don’t give up- there are so many good poets whose work deserves to be read. You could be one of them!


My Year in Writing

Do you remember NASA’s “faster, better. cheaper” venture in the 90s? It was based on the idea that by designing smaller missions that could launch more quickly, the agency might get more done, more efficiently, than if it pursued grand initiatives. Some of the missions fell down and went boom, but it did get NASA moving again after a decade of relative lethargy. Well, in that same spirit, I’m continuing on my mission of getting out at least a blog posting a week this year, even be they quick and dirty. And so on to this week’s theme- my writing track record in 2014.

A few years ago, I settled on the goal of making a publishing submission per week. Short story, essay, poetry, whatever, just submit something to a journal, offline or online, once a week. That would, of course, be 52 for the year, which has never happened yet due to holidays, hectic work weeks, feeling under the weather, what not. My operating theory is that having the target probably gets me delivering more, even if I miss, then if there was no target. Turns out that 2014 was my most submittingest year ever, with 43 total submissions, as attested to by my tracking spreadsheet:

My tracking spreadsheet also informs me that I’ve had two acceptances so far from things I submitted in 2014. One should be coming out in the Spring, and since I have a superstitious peasant mind, I don’t want to jinx by saying any more. The other was two poems that appeared in Misfit Magazine in October.

I also had several “near-misses”, i.e. places that wrote back to me and said something wasn’t quite right for them, and why, or that I was a semi-finalist but not a finalist. I actually find these to be nearly as motivating as acceptances. They’re kind of proof-of-concept of being on-track, and provide a lot more feedback than the form “Dear [insert name here]” rejections one usually gets, or the even more unnerving whistling silence of places that never answer back in any form. 

In addition to the regular weekly submissions, I’ve also been submitting two larger works to presses and prizes: my unpublished poetry collection Pushing 40, and my unpublished novel Out in the Neon Night. I sent out the poetry collection ten times last year, and the novel seven. I’ll keep you posted on further developments…

My other major writing focus over the last year was to get more regular and disciplined about writing time, always a challenge for me given full-time work, a full-time relationship, recovery, other interests (including serving as a Poetry Editor at Mud Season Review), etc. In other words, life. Shout-outs to Tarin Towers for telling me “shut up and do it” (it was phrased more elegantly than that, but just as firmly) and my talented and lovely wife for helping me brainstorm about the how/when. I targeted 6 hours a week. And came not even close!

Excel informs me I ended up with 65.76 hours of writing time, which works out to an average of an hour and a quarter a week. Again, though, I have to believe that aiming got me further than winging it would have, and resulted in less of a sense of anxiety and drift. So what does 65.76 hours get you? In my case:

  • Completing the (hopefully) penultimate draft of my full-length screenplay
  • Revising a short story to get it down to a word-limit that will work better for submissions
  • Starting a new short story
  • Writing a personal essay looking back on Generation-X as seen through the lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which I’m quite pleased with and currently submitting hither and yon
  • Completing a challenge to write 40 poems in 40 days
  • Writing a sestina, because the idea intrigued me     
For 2015, I’m aiming for 5 hours a week, on the theory that if one wrote for an hour a day every weekday, that’s what it would equal to. Because, math. We’ll see how I do, but for this week I have one hour down, thanks to writing this post for you. So thank you! 

Short New Year’s Post

I am told by fairly reliable sources (for example, the archive menu immediately to the right of this posting) that I didn’t Blog at all in 2014. Egads!

Well, the simplest way to stop having stopped something is to start it again. And the simplest way to start something is to be okay with doing even a little pinch of it, and to give yourself permission to do it imperfectly. So I’m going to keep this short.

2014 was a good year in many ways, but one of the big ones was that I bought the house pictured above with this lady:

The house also features these resident cats:

And the following ring-necked pheasant that sometimes visits (unless the fox we’ve seen crossing our road several times has gotten him):

The whole process of looking for, buying, and moving in to a house dominated a lot of the year, one of the reasons there was so little blog activity. But enough excuses! I hereby am blogging again. This is the post that bear witness to that. May Odin, Zeus and Ra have mercy…