In the first writer’s guide I ever bought (I think I might have been 17 at the time), every market entry included the following instructions: “Please include a SASE with adequate postage for reply, and a cover letter that includes a brief writer’s bio.” The words sometimes included other instructions for submitting by mail, some including “reading fees” and the like, but for the most part, the standard editor expected you to include A.) a well-written and properly formatted cover letter, B.) your submission of 3-5 poems (some more, some less), and C.) the all-important self-addressed stamped envelope.
Today, the process has become much more mainstreamed and fast-tracked, with online submission sites like Submittable making life easier on the industrious writer. There is a space for a cover letter through such services, though editors today seldom expect it to be the eloquent and elegant communication that it was once supposed to be. Moreover, the modern submissions process takes perhaps a few seconds as opposed to the elaborate endeavor that it once was. Some would call this progress, including me. By the same token, however, there are some points about this slicker model that make me somewhat nostalgic for the “good old days.”
First, the tree-free model lacks the air of refinement that stationery and bone-colored, fibrous papers promised. Yes, I am aware that all this shipping and mailing taxed our environment to a degree, but by that same token, it carried with it a certain degree of class and culture that we have lost today in the effluence of digital missives. No more can people be identified by their cursive, and no more do wax seals bear the impressive monogram of a sender. Instead, we have yet another heading in yet another database.
When historians want to trace the personal writings of famous authors of our era, will they be limited to the “comments” section of some submission site? Where will the personality of the writers shine through, other than their “professional” writings? No more will there be pointed handwritten notes to indicate the passion or the passivity of the correspondent. No more envelopes sealed by a variety of methods. No more yellowed, saved and folded notes. We are slowly but surely losing a vital piece of our humanity to the name of efficiency.
It was my pleasure recently to send off an old-school submission to a chapbook contest. Yes, I had to use my own printer ink. Yes, I had to include that SASE. And yes, I even had to write a check and a writer’s bio. Plus, I had to buy postage. But all that, I felt, was worth it. At least when that editor receives my submission, he or she will be grasping some small piece of my personality beyond my poetry. Win or lose, a piece of myself has reached another fellow human being, and the intrinsic value to that small act is beyond the price of any printer cartridge.