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!


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