A Fast of a Different Kind
Lots of talk has recently surrounded the subject of fasting. There’s intermittent fasting, carb fasting, even social media fasting (which I’ve done and enjoyed, frankly). For the past month, I’ve been engaged in another sort of fast — one intended to decrease my stress levels and simultaneously give me more time to create: The Submissions Fast.
You heard that right: For the last 22 days, I have not submitted any of my poetic work to any publisher or contest, large or small. “Why would a working poet do this?” you might ask. Here’s my answer…
I noticed about a month ago that my Submittable queue had grown to more than 30 submissions that were either “received” or “in progress.” This meant that publishers had my latest works in hand at a variety of venues. Some places looking at my poems were competitions, some were magazines I respected, and still others were small operations seeking poems for other purposes.
Whatever their mission, these diverse outlets were all considering some incarnation of my best 10 or 12 recently written poems (some in series of five, some in series of three, and others looking at just one, depending on guidelines and needs). These potential publishers were giving their editorial eye to essentially the same material. I knew it was time to lay off. I’m a fan of simultaneous submissions, but there comes a time when the business of writing must give way to the art of it.
And so, for the last several weeks, I’ve reined in my usual desire to submit, submit, submit. I’m letting these poems “rest” while I write, teach, and focus on other endeavors. When I see one of the ubiquitous calls for submissions, I ignore it and keep moving to other unrelated items. Doing so is hard; for decades now, I’ve lived under the expectation that “being a poet means putting your work out into the world” by submitting it. But at some point, enough is enough.
Despite my earnest desire to send off a packet of my poetry to a new journal or contest I see advertised, I’ve endured and persevered, and the results have been unexpected. I find myself gravitating more toward creative nonfiction as opposed to crafting new poems. Maybe it started as a way of coping with submission-loss: “If I’m writing and submitting stuff in a different genre, it doesn’t count.” Like the addict who insists a different brand of the same substance is exempt from restriction, I convinced myself that putting prose in front of editors was not (is not) like submitting poetry.
Writing reflectively about this decision demonstrates its fallacy, of course. Turning work in to potential publishers and getting that hope-driven dopamine rush is the same, no matter what kind of writing is involved. So, I’m just going to call those nonfiction submissions “cheat days” like certain diets would allow. That’s a reasonable justification, right?
The other effect that not submitting has had on me is a certain calm. No longer do I feel the need to frantically check the progress indicators on my present submissions, and no longer do I obsess over which editor might be viewing which work at what time. Leaving my work to do its thing is much like planting seeds. I know I have to wait for these little efforts to produce or fail. Stressing over them is a futile decision that induces unnecessary anxiety.
There’s plenty in my life to fret about without adding more to the menu. Submitting can be a rewarding learning experience. But when it gets out of hand, like anything else, it’s time to exercise some control. Doing so has allowed my mind to explore other avenues and relieve itself of a fetter that shouldn’t exist.
Maybe some of those 30 places will say yes. Many, I’m certain, will say no (my acceptance rate tells me so). But in the meantime, I’m not going to worry about it. Putting my work out there is supposed to be the enjoyable part of this literary life. When it becomes the opposite, stopping is the solution.
The Work You Have Faith In
If this post had a soundtrack, it would be Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Here’s why: Yesterday my writing received an acceptance from a literary journal I’ve wanted my work to appear in for years. The poems they accepted had previously received favorable rejections (you know the kind: “We found much to admire, but…”). Everything I’ve ever learned from workshops, seminars, and personal experience told me that these pieces had quality. Nonetheless, they had been turned down several times. In fact, one of them was more than a year old and had yet to find a home.
I began to worry: Was my literary taste-o-meter just that far off? Was I overlooking some flagrant error that everybody else could see? What was the matter? The truth was, the poems were as good as I had thought (oh-so modestly), but other factors were at play. Space considerations, editor fatigue, and a whole host of other circumstances can often keep excellent poems out of journals’ pages, and it’s critical to remember just exactly how subjective the literary business is — All. The. Time.
Whatever previous editors’ reasons for turning these poems down, I kept on submitting them to respectable magazines and venues, knowing that somebody was going to appreciate them sooner or later. That persistence paid off, and no matter what well-meaning writing teachers may tell you, sometimes it doesn’t. It takes more than stubbornness or grit to get work accepted — there also has to be merit, value, and a certain amount of good fortune involved. This fact isn’t meant to discourage; it’s just what I’ve found to be true.
This latest acceptance also came at a time when I needed it most. For the past several months, I’ve been on a real rejection streak…so much so that I was reaching the dreaded point of asking, “Should I even continue?” Instead, I exhaled a quick “Thank You Lord” upon receiving this “yes” email, interpreting it as some assurance that I’m still using my talent well.
Just when you think you’re about done, something good happens to reaffirm your path. Sometimes believing in the worth of your own work is the answer. Have faith in the good things you produce, and keep putting them out there. Encouragement is waiting.
Business: A Dirty Word for Poets?
Not long ago, I assumed a new title within my organization. The new position involves thinking more like a manager and less like a classroom educator. This move has been a pretty big cognitive shift for someone who spent the last 15 years worrying about lesson planning, gradebook updates, project-based learning, community partnerships, and the latest instructional technology.
These days, the kinds of questions I’m asking are concerned with the bigger picture beyond the classroom: How is our organization performing? Are our customers being served in the optimal way? Who in our group needs help, and how might I provide it? Is our policy what it ought to be? What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT)?
To the literary-minded among you, I apologize. All this business talk is probably anathema to your very existence. But as one to whom it was equally foreign, I’ve had to adapt, and this change has made me think of another arena where business is sometimes perceived as the dark side: Poetry.
Yes, we poets would like to simply write our words and have them immediately recognized for their greatness and their beauty, but that’s not how it works. There is the sometimes-disgruntling submissions process, the signing of publishing contracts, the concern over rights and what constitutes “previously published,” and a million other little entanglements of the commercial or legal sort. Poets have to be business people, too. But so often we dread and disparage it.
Here’s a little secret: The business part can be as fun as the creative part. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but seriously, equal to the joy of a finished, polished poem is the hope felt when the “submit” button is pressed. Granted, sometimes that hope is dashed when rejection comes (and it does, more often than not), but the endorphins and dopamine produced while being an efficient, organized professional can rival those elicited by a really great line or stanza. The pleasures of logic and reason simply come from a different part of the brain than we creatives regularly use.
Moreover, when your “management” has paid off, it definitely makes the tedium worth it. Those hours spent on fellowship applications, the eye-wearying process of figuring out which works to submit to a particular contest, and the seemingly interminable wait for a magazine’s answer are all rewarded when the reply is a sweet-sounding yes.
When the answer is no, though, it can make you wonder why you bothered at all. I’ve been there: “Why did I wait six months for a reply from Magazine X (who won’t accept simultaneous submissions) when I could have sent these same poems to Magazine Y, who certainly would have accepted them?” or “I can’t believe I went through all the trouble of filling out that ream of documents for an award I didn’t even get.” Yep, I know the feeling. Disheartening, to say the least.
But trust me when I say that the occasional affirmative reply outweighs the saddening (and more regular) negative ones. As I’ve mentioned before, poetry has taken me to places — literal, geographic locations — I never would have seen on my own. But none of those journeys would have occurred if I hadn’t mustered up the left-brained moxie to apply, submit, or propose. And doing those parts, however contrary to my nature, made possible both memories and poems, rich rewards of their own sort.
Don’t fear the paperwork. Don’t call it bureaucracy. No matter how much we disdain them, the processes and the logistics that lead to literary opportunities are necessary, and the sooner we get friendly with them, the more successful we will become. Why not start today?
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 Blessing and Curse of Subjectivity
Again I find myself apologizing for a rather extended absence from the blogosphere; I just completed another intense 10-day residency in University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. During those days, I was privileged to sit in workshops with fellow writers and hear their opinions and suggestions regarding my work. Some, as you might imagine, were quite good. They made my work more concise, clearer, and cleaner. Other suggestions were less fruitful, demonstrating only that the reader was unfamiliar with certain literary tools/devices, or that they simply had divergent poetic sensibilities from my own.
For poets, both the pleasure and the problem come from the realm of subjectivity. Over the last three semesters for instance, I’ve had three different writing mentors. All three are well-known and celebrated contemporary poets with extensive publication histories, award-winning books, and other laurels. Each one has brought a new and valuable gift to the table, and each one has had his or her own personal preferences about what poetry should look like, sound like, feel like, and be. Mentor One had different “rules” than Mentor Two, and Mentor Three has already discarded some of Mentor Two’s hard-and-fast standards. Some like language poetry, others despise it, favoring neo-modernism instead. The list goes on and on.
These vast variations among “experts” have led me to one solid conclusion: Poetry is entirely subjective. This is not a new truth. In fact, it’s one that we were advised about from the very get-go of this MFA program. But the reality of subjectivity is just now beginning to truly evidence itself for me personally. What one editor loves, another hates, and what one professor praises, another scorns. The same could be said of my fellow students in the program — because poetry doesn’t really play by any concrete rules, one workshop participant can be just as right as another in saying yea or nay to different constructions, images, parallels, or rhymes. Some reasons for critiques have a stronger tradition than others, but nobody gets excluded from having his or her say-so.
As a right-brained creative, I like the abstract notion that poetry can be perceived and valued in so many different ways. However, as a rule-follower and a structure-lover, I find myself desiring certain definitive, concrete absolutes within poetry simultaneously. It’s a perilous and paradoxical predicament, and not unlike those faced by certain other professions — what one doctor sees as incredible treatment, another calls quack medicine. What one lawyer claims is an excellent defense, another decries as logical fallacy. Those of us in the arts, however, are especially prone to the whims of individuals’ opinions: People at the top of the literary food chain have absolute mindsets about what makes great work, and woe to the poor soul whose words fail to comply with those perceptions.
The happier side of this question coin, though, is certainly worth examination: If a reader LOVES your writing, he or she will tend to LOVE it completely. Fan followings are created upon this same psychology. There exists very little grey area between the emotional responses caused by a poem. Either the reader identifies with it and embraces it after a couple of read-throughs, or he or she casts it aside as unworthy. Sure, some folks will say, “Well, I like this piece, but it’s not the poet’s strongest,” but at the end of the day, they still follow your progress and like your Facebook page. One less-liked piece won’t totally alter overall perception (unless you really step in some deep kimchi).
The question poets are tasked with asking ourselves is this: Is subjectivity our friend or foe? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.” The artistic tastes, whims and preferences of other individuals result in publication, awards, fellowships, and the other markers of a writing life. Equally, those same sentiments result in harsh critical reviews, rejection letters, and workshop ugliness. Working in the humanities demands understanding and contending with humanity — its flaws, its beauty, and yes, its unpredictable subjectivity.
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.