Being a poetry editor is a privilege and also a funny thing. Thousands of people send you their work to be considered for the upcoming issue. Thousands of people in cities or towns across America, people in international locales, each with their routine, the landmarks passed on the way to work -- a favorite diner or an odd billboard, the pasture, the spire, the sprawl...As someone who submits poetry to literary journals, I wonder about people on the other end.
People you will never meet. People whose names grace the contents of the finest journals around. People who are just getting started. I hope this note demystifies some of the selection process, or at least my process in how I select poems. Other editors, I am sure, work differently.
The Citron Review is an online literary journal with roots in California. Citron was actually the name of a cohort of graduating seniors in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles circa 2008 or 2009.
Our founding editors were Antonia Crane, Aaron Gansky, Trish Falin, and Judy Sunderland; subsequent editors included Heather Luby, who steered the ship for several years; Jacqui Morton, who provided leadership during a time of transition for our journal; and now Angela Brommel, who brings her own ideas to what a 21st century literary journal should be.
Each quarter on the solstice or equinox, our journal publishes four selections in the following genres: poetry, creative nonfiction, flash fiction, and micro fiction. I cannot speak to numbers our editors see in other genres, but I estimate two hundred submissions for four poetry spots. Each editor writes a letter about the acceptances for that issue, which provides context for the picks. Our editor-in-chief, Angela Brommel, also writes a letter to frame the issue.
In a perfect world, the best four poems win. Usually that happens, though sometimes the best poems may be too proximal in scope, subject matter, craft, or any number of things. Sometimes, a theme emerges from current events or trends in poetry that we feel demands recognition. In that case, the four poems that best approach the theme may get published.
There are poems that are wonderfully accessible and reveal rich narratives. Poems that lessen the distance between the strangers who inhabit the planet and ourselves. But sometimes I read those poems, loving them, and feel I can continue without returning to those lines. Sometimes it is the odd bird in the forest I cannot escape; however hard I try to move on, I return, fascinated by its new pose on a tree -- its awkward, yet strangely affecting song. While it is difficult to describe the voice of a typical Citron poem, I can tell you some of our favorite poets: John Ashbery, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Terrance Hayes, Kate Hall, Rene Char, Richard Siken, Anne Carson, E.E. Cummings, Sharon Olds, Lee Ann Roripaugh, and Brenda Shaughnessy.
I do not consider myself an arbiter of taste. I do consider myself someone who has expertise in poetry through my work as a poet, professor, and editor. Typically, I can look at a submission and tell quickly if it has potential for us. I always read a submission in its entirety before marking it with a Yes, No, or Maybe in Submittable. I mark submissions as soon as I give them a good read. That way, the poet knows that someone is looking at the poem. And we respond in less than three months. We encourage simultaneous submissions because we know what it is to wonder about a poem.
I mark a lot of Maybes because a lot can be missed on a first read. As poets, we trust in the editing process and feel we can work out disconnects in a later draft. I have worked with poets on revision but for the most part, the poem needs to be set on arrival.
Most of the poets we publish are established writers, but we will consider unpublished writers or writers with little to no credits. Two of my favorite Citron poems from the last few years come from Danielle Hale, an emerging poet from North Dakota. Her poems "Blood Quantum" and "9/32" are astonishing.
I think it is important for poets to indicate how they stay close to poetry in their bio. Usually, that means listing publications, teaching positions, workshops attended, and so forth. I like to see something in this block of prose, regardless of one's credentials. Clever is okay, but not too clever. I do not need to see a list of every publication a poet has accumulated. In fact, if a poet is well published, composing a mile-long list comes off as slightly pretentious. It is preferable to make the list concise.
Some familiarity with our journal is also appreciated. For example, Citron used to be strict on its line limit -- no more than thirty lines for a poem. That has changed, but according to our website, we still "celebrate the short form" and it is true. So to submit an epic poem to Citron either reads, "I don't care what kind of poems you publish, check out this one!" or "I confess: These poems were fired off to a hundred journals." Neither option is good.
Sometimes we publish poets who have been previously published in our journal. In that case, I prefer that the poet wait at least three issues before submitting again. If a poet has work that is in-progress in Submittable, we want that poet to wait until a decision is made.
The editors at Citron have our favorite literary journals. We strive to make Citron a literary journal that excites, so we tinker; we change the look of the website; we keep in touch with one another. We have done special issues such as a contest to write poems in the spirit of Carl Sandburg or an LGBTQ issue with guest editors.
We like poems that balance craft with emotional resonance and invite a second read. We like poems that feature a second subject (i.e. the main subject is representative of something else). That said, we also like poetry that is accessible and not intentionally obscure.
We are writers. Writers who submit work to literary journals, writers who read literary journals, people with the same kinds of failures and successes as the poets who submit their work to us.
I think we have to honor our quirky voices on the page. George Saunders once said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that as writers, we should turn toward our neuroses. I think this also means writing to our interests rather than what is trending. If we want to write gothic fiction which features an alien protagonist, we can do so. If we want to write Flarf poetry that resembles binary code, we can. To paraphrase another writer, Vaclav Havel, the late 20th century humanitarian and leader of the Czech Republic, he once said that poets reach an age -- maybe 35 or 40 -- where they have to reinvent themselves. Where what once worked works no longer.
If this statement is true, and true across genres, it means that we cannot help but to be quirky at some point because we are engaging the unfamiliar and possibly sending out scary new material to publishers. As long as we know the journal in question and the work feels realized, we should be just fine.
Eric Steineger teaches English at Mars Hill University. He is the Senior Poetry Editor of The Citron Review, while his work has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, Rattle: The Poets Respond, Asheville Poetry Review, and Tinderbox, among other journals.