About Controversial Editors
Recently I had a piece published by a journal that is edited by someone who has received, shall we say, “mixed responses” from the literary community. This editor’s political and religious views are certainly not “mainstream” in the poetry world, for certain.
That being said, I love this editor’s written work and [their] journal’s style. The fact that this person has been berated for unconventional beliefs is inconsequential to me as a writer. If anything, I admire the editor more for that willingness to stand on principles, whether I agree with them or not.
Nonetheless, I’m aware that in the future, my work being published by the editor’s journal may be a “dark mark” against my name. Guess what? I don’t care.
Too often writers inform their choices based on what is “acceptable.” I have reached a magical middle age where such considerations don’t enter my radar anymore. Good journal? Submit. Bad journal? Don’t. It’s really that simple. I don’t base my submissions on who nominates how many for which awards. I don’t look at percentages of rejections or acceptances. I don’t even give an inkling to a publication’s “prestige.” I send my work to places I respect. The end. Accepted? Hooray! Rejected? Keep going.
“But don’t you want to be on ‘the right side of history?'” my socially concerned friends may ask. My answer: Not especially. The annals of literature contain heroes and villains alike — those we’ve forgiven and those we haven’t. If I’m eventually judged by the same politically correct mob that hates the Fugitives but adores Ginsberg, so be it. Their sensitivity to prevailing mores has blinded them to a great span of sterling work, and frankly, my words aren’t for them anyway.
My poems speak of old-fashioned values, hard work, forgotten places, and flawed people. These topics exclude me from certain bookshelves, and that’s okay. Furthermore, it’s equally okay that my work is published in places that may one day “fall from grace.”
For today, my poetry is there, chosen by an editor who might or might not share my vision of the world. If that bothers you, dear reader, please heed this message: None of us is perfect. Let’s forego the hypocrisy of pretending that any man-made philosophy is fallacy-free and just enjoy the show. History will write (and right) itself.
The Personal Touch Still Matters
“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.
When should you blacklist a publisher?
I’m not usually one to post one negative thing after another, but recently, circumstances in my literary life have been causing me to offer a few “no-nos” to the general public. In today’s edition: How to know when you should never submit to a magazine/journal/publisher again.
Without naming names, I’ll tell you that I’ve recently scrawled a list of literary venues that I will never offer my work to again, and posted them to my bulletin board as a reminder. As a younger writer, I did this after a single rejection (or even two or three), which was hot-headed and foolish on my part. However, the places that I’ve listed and “sworn off” recently have committed editorial faux pas that I consider frankly unforgivable in the 21st century. And so, without further adieu (punny, yes?), here’s why I said goodbye and good riddance to a few literary outlets lately:
1. No response unless accepted. One journal is on my list because the editors cling to a policy that states, “We will communicate with you only in case of acceptance.” Hogwash. There is absolutely no reason that a magazine of any size should refuse sending a simple “no” to a waiting and hopeful writer. Their exclusive practice is rude, and rudeness doesn’t fly, even today.
2. Hostile, condescending, or insulting rejections. Another place is on my list because the editor could have sent a simple form rejection letter or a polite “This doesn’t fit our current needs,” but decided instead to engage in blatant snobbery and offer a few ad hominem cutting remarks. Where “no thanks” will suffice, subtle or obvious condescension has no place. Farewell, editorial ugliness. You have no home here.
3. Rampant inefficiency or gross incompetence. My third blacklisted venue accepted my work more than two years ago, and published it about a week ago. No, I haven’t mentioned them by name here or on social media. I thought the place had gone belly-up, honestly, as my attempts at communication were never returned, and I had already submitted the pieces they accepted to other venues. This could have created a major legal snafu, among other issues. Also, my author’s bio was grossly outdated in this publication due to lax oversight and poor management. Never again, (name withheld) Review. Yes, I know publishing is tough and time-consuming, but not to the extent that it should cause literary malpractice.
4. Emotional/personal affairs affecting editorial discernment. The final place to which I will no longer submit is operated by a novice publisher who sees every “no thank you” as a personal attack, or as an affront to the integrity of her/his operation. This same publisher overshares his/her personal problems when deadlines are missed or when quality is questionable. When the boss has problems, everybody has problems, much like the old adage “When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” I’ll steer clear, thanks.
So there you have them: my reasons for “blacklisting” certain publishers. Some of these may seem hasty or even unfair, but in every case, my personal experience has been such that I felt compelled to write them off. I would be interested to know why you, the reader, have stopped submitting to various places, as well. Feel free to posit your experiences in the comments section (please keep it clean and non-libelous). We’ve all been there. Keep writing!
The Awards Game
It’s that time of year again: Editors and publishers are nominating works from their magazines and bookshelves for a broad range of laurels. Most notably at this time of year, writers receive word of Pushcart Prize nominations. As a younger writer, I used to get all tingly when those nominations arrived by email — kindly journal editors who liked my work sent it on to that mystical committee that views thousands of submissions every year from literary journals all over. I am still honored to have my work nominated for the Pushcart (as it was again this year), but in speaking with mentors and writer-friends of mine, I’ve come to understand something: Poets “worth their salt” are nominated for the Pushcart almost annually. Venerated veterans of poetry take such nominations for granted, apparently, even though those of us who are still “emerging” think them a big deal. So, I’ve learned to cool my jets a little. Once my work is actually included in the honorable Pushcart anthology, I’ll certainly add that detail to my author’s bio. But for now, I suppose I should join the ranks of my fellow authors who see nominations as a nice thought, a kind gesture, but ultimately, little more than a tip of the hat toward one’s work.
I’ve learned also that the awards one reads about in other writers’ portfolios aren’t always as glamorous as they seem (take note, young writers). Certain awards may open some doors, they may add something to one’s CV, but outside the literary community, they don’t amount to a hill of beans. Robert Frost was a fan of the old saw “Fine words butter no parsnips,” and I suppose in the world of literary awards, a similar thought exists — shiny trophies, parchment certificates, and faux-wood plaques don’t make you a writer any more than a fancy hat does.
Recently a publisher friend of mine let me know that my book has been nominated for a couple of other awards, as well. If I win, it will be a wonderful experience, and I’m trying hard not to get my hopes up too much prior to the announcements. These awards are entered by many of my most respected fellow writers and their publishers, as well. To even enter the field is an honor unto itself. The danger, of course, in winning awards is the temptation toward stasis — many a great writer, after earning the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, has lain down his pen. The award was an end rather than a milepost on the journey. Writers, as awards season enters full swing, the temptation is great to see pinnacles where only plateaus exist. Gilded honors are stations on the path, not summits to be conquered. Let us be grateful and humbled, but let’s not be complacent. There’s writing yet to do. Stick that award on the shelf or on your book cover, and let’s keep going.
How tactile-kinesthetic readers may save print
Having just returned from my next-to-last MFA residency, I’ve had time to give some thought to the future of print books. At University of Tampa’s Book Arts Studio, I was given the opportunity to physically assemble a print book — in this case, a reprint of T.S. Eliot’s essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. Our class learned the folding, punching, and binding techniques that go into the creation of a holdable text.
There exists a great hue and cry in publishing right now, as small and independent booksellers continue to bemoan the e-giants’ monopoly over popular reading (see prior posts for more on this topic). As humans reach for their devices rather than paper, bookstore owners and publishers alike begin biting their nails.
Here’s something, though, that has gone largely unconsidered: Bibliophiles of every generation enjoy the feeling associated with reading. When a book is especially well-produced — its cover embossed, its spine ridged, its pages delightful to turn — that experience becomes a large part of readers’ motives. They want to engage that part of their brains that makes connections with things touched rather than simply seen. For these tactile-kinesthetic learners (Gardner, 1983), reading is a complete sensory immersion, not merely a placing of text in the mind’s coffers.
I think back to my childhood, when my sister used to climb our old barn door and recline on the barn roof with her worn copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. The escape and engagement of those moments became something that has stayed with her forever. Part of the book’s mental and emotional perseverance resides within the format of the book she selected, and of course the “getaway” it provided. Had we owned e-readers at the time (long, long ago), I do not believe that the text would have been as meaningful. It would have become just another series of letter impressions, relegated to the same mental vault as USA Today headlines.
I admit it — I have an e-reader or two. I’ve even published my own 2005 print volume in the Kindle format. But when I want to read for pleasure and not just information, inevitably I turn toward traditional print books. I’ve tried reading poetry in the electronic format; it loses the organic intimacy that a print text elicits. Reading, for those who seek to enjoy it, needs to be a complete set of sensations, not just fonts hitting retinas. And it is precisely these touch-influenced readers who truly want to “suck out all the marrow” of a book. They may be print’s salvation in an age of expedient electronics. The future will tell.
The Expected Rejection
I’ve written before about my “rejection practices,” but this little tidbit deals more with a specific type of rejection: the expected one from the MAJOR magazine.
Today in the mail, I got a rejection slip from a powerhouse national magazine whose literary prominence is known far and wide. No personalized notations were on this slip, and of course, I hadn’t really anticipated any. My main motives for annual submissions to huge magazines with slush piles the size of Everest are twofold, really: 1. Doing so keeps me humble, and 2. It gives me some sense that my work has been in front of influential editors, even if they did reject it.
This next statement sounds terribly snobbish, but honestly, the proficient poet becomes accustomed to better-than-average acceptance rates from smaller literary magazines. When one sends work predominantly to fledgling journals and up-and-comer markets, acceptance and kind words become a fairly regular occurrence, with a few apologetic rejections along the way. Editors, for the most part, are appreciative to receive your work, and you as the writer are pleased to be published. It’s a great relationship, and one I never take for granted.
On the flipside of this publishing coin, however, is the danger of egotism. After so many acceptances, the writer’s head can grow quite large if not checked. Something has to level out the mountaintop experiences of mutliple publications in smaller journals to maintain balance. Rejection from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or other major publications helps to keep the poet realistic and attached to modest roots. Granted, any rejection helps to accomplish this, but the coldly impersonal rejection slip from enormous national publications is the best of all ego-crushers. No explanation, no “we really liked this, but…” statements, just a flat-out “NO,” worded as generically and insensitively as possible. Tough luck, Mr. Wordsmith…no dice. (EDITORS: Please don’t interpret this graf as a request for more rejections; I have enough for a while, thanks.)
Certain writer friends of mine have this conspiracy theory that big-time mags rotate off the poems of about 12 different renowned writers each year, and that any submission from someone without name recognition is immediately dismissed without a second thought. For now, I remain optimistic that editors and publishers are serious when they state in their guidelines that they are “devoted to discovering new voices.” Truthfully, if I were in their positions and I had to choose between rockstar fellowship winners or Joe Blow the small-town unknown, I’d probably make the same decisions they did: Publish the identifiable, decline the struggling. Empathy doesn’t make the rejection sting less, but at least it allows some justification.
My hope, of course, is that one day the tide of rejection from the “big boys” will stop, and I will finally be among the elite who manage to have their work carried in the prestigious pages of historic, culture-defining publications. For now, my small-time successes (see prior posts) sustain me and encourage me to keep going. Equally appreciated are the small magazine editors who reject work with thoughtful feedback, as well as the ones who accept my work with gratitude. Some of the best critiques I have ever received have been from the desks of truly devoted editors at college or “little” magazines. Their input has been invaluable, and hopefully, their refining suggestions will lead to bigger and better things as time progresses. For now, I have work to improve and send out, and for tonight, that’s enough.
Integrity: When did it stop mattering?
Recently, I’ve had more than one run-in with editors and publishers who say they’ll do one thing, and then they don’t. It’s disappointing, not only because my work hangs in the balance, but also because their behavior is indicative of a much larger cultural problem: the loss of character.
At one time, those who broke promises and failed to meet their obligations were castigated by the larger whole of society. People operated with the expectation that when someone said they would do something, it would indeed be done. Accountability was high, and our products and businesses reflected the ideals of quality and honesty. Contracts were a mere formality. But this post is no rant in favor of regression or even reminiscence. It’s a call to activation and engagement.
Today, integrity has become a buzzword for political campaigns and other self-enhancing promotions. We have handed over the mantle of consumer advocacy to organizations and toothless watchdogs who, in turn, also serve themselves more than the concerned individual. Those who speak up and voice their frustrations are seen as rude or strange, and all the while competitors abroad are seizing on our loss of commercial moral fibre.
Here is my promise to you, readers: I am awaiting word from at least three different literary magazines that have failed to make good on their publication promises. They have repeatedly missed deadlines, and their response to these infractions has been a sort of beligerent indifference laced with adolescent-sounding excuses. If these editors and publishers continue to fail in the fulfillment of their duties, I will happily publicize their lack of integrity, not only here in this little blog, but also through Duotrope, Submittable, and other writing-submission-related sites. I do this not out of mean-spirited blackmail, but out of respect for other writers and creators who deserve to have their work treated with professionalism.
Again, I am disappointed that my encounters with these magazines has had to take such an ugly turn. A little bit of character and communication could have gone a long way, but instead, I’m left now with the job of staging a one-man rebellion. I would ask you to join me in this fight. No more laziness, no more dishonesty, no more apathy. It’s time to regain the sense of right that we once demanded. Today is the day to begin.
Simultaneous Submissions and Such
As an active working writer, I confess: I simultaneously submit work all over the place. A lot of journals these days have woken up to the fact that authors are going to be sending their work to multiple places at various times, and therefore, editors have broadened their horizons about simultaneous submissions — manuscripts sent to more than one venue at a time.There are a few journals’ bosses that still frown on this practice however; they assume that you must value their opinion so much that you would NEVER send your work to someone else at the same time. This elitist and frankly inefficient mentality is a holdover from a more Guttenbergian time, when “gentlemen” were expected to give their exclusive attention to one press at a time. Rarely do things operate in such a way today, though. Journaleers who expect writers to give them some kind of preferential treatment are as obsolete as tophats and typewriters.Recently, I submitted some pieces to a publication that included among its guidelines the statement, “We prefer no simultaneous submissions.” In my cover letter, I told the editors forthrightly that the pieces were being “shopped around” to other publications — if they want my work, they’ll have to come to grips with the fact that I have bills to pay and I operate largely on a “first-acceptance, first-dibs” basis. This isn’t some kind of snobbishness on my part; it’s just sound business practice. I want my work out there efficiently and presented well. Whoever does that the fastest and the best is the proverbial “winner.” If writers have to grapple with competition from others, why shouldn’t editors and publishers as well?Granted, the aforementioned publication might frown upon someone so recklessly disregarding their preferences, but at the end of the day, I know I have to face myself as a professional poet, and sometimes that means going against the grain. Here’s hoping I haven’t burned a vital bridge in the process…