“This is a very, very fine poem. I just wanted to call you and let you know that we’ll be including it in our July issue. Thank you for sending it to us.” …And my day was made.
It isn’t every day one receives a phone call from the editor of a literary journal, especially one as busy as The American Journal of Poetry, founded and operated by Robert Nazarene (who called me) and James Wilson. Readers may recognize these two esteemed gentlemen as the former editors of MARGIE, a literary magazine that was legendary in its time for inclusion of high-quality and award-winning material.
Their July issue of AJP will include such renowned poetry giants as Mark Jarman, Alice Friman, and Tony Hoagland — and it will also include yours truly. The fact that my work is being published alongside these poets and others I deeply respect would have been enough to send me over the moon. But the fact that the editor reached out by phone, a nearly unheard-of act of kindness in the poetry realm, was the icing on the proverbial cake. His praise of my work combined with his personal interest spoke volumes about his work ethic and his dedication to an oft-underappreciated task.
So as you’re reading over the ugly remarks about editors on sites like Duotrope, bear in mind that there are still a few out there who do the task in a timely and proficient manner. Some even care enough to make phone calls, and by doing so, rekindle the fire of poetic passion beneath skeptical and world-hardened writers. Even in a time dominated by online submission trackers and digital everything, the personal touch still matters. Thank you to those gatekeepers and decision-makers who continue to do their jobs in a way that enhances the humanity of the literary community. Now more than ever, you’re needed.
One of the best things about being a poet around the holidays is the reflection that generates so many great memories. Ideas spurred on by recollections of past Christmases or realizations that take place here in the present are equally powerful motivations to write.
The one cautionary admonition I would issue to my fellow writers, however, falls into that dreadful category of avoiding bathos — that ripe sentimentality (see prior posts) which lessens the power of our words. Holidays become great cliche fodder; all the old pieces of language from carols and cards come flooding back to our brains, and if we aren’t careful, they’ll seep their way into our writing and stink it up like expired egg nog.
With that word of sufficient warning, allow me to make one slight allowance — writing work that alludes to Christmas carols or other seasonal cultural icons is entirely different. Starting a poem with “Silent Night, Holy Night” and then altering it to convey a completely different message than the old hymn is okay. Moreover, it’s a world apart from describing one’s past family celebrations as “holly jolly” or simply “merry.” Yuck!
The challenge for writers of all genres is finding new ways to express the oldest of great notions. When Dickens penned A Christmas Carol so long ago, you can bet that he knew his message was not novel — “greed bad, generosity good” had been a maxim for generations before Ebenezer Scrooge existed. But through memorable characterization, engaging dialogue (who doesn’t know “Bah! Humbug!”) and other tools of the trade, Dickens was able to render a masterpiece that has been adapted and enjoyed for more than a century.
As writers, the greatest gift we can give ourselves this season is new perspective. Let’s leave the old wrapping paper of holiday hackney in the dark recesses of our mental attics, and erect the fresh green boughs of our modern perceptions and expressions. As our memories and our current situations blend warmly in the glow of the holidays, let us task ourselves with the duty of renewal and re-purpose. The ghost of Christmas yet to come will thank us for it.