Chopping Wood and Carrying Water: Notes from a Poetry Editor
As a writer, I came to poetry late, though I dabbled in it a long time. Ever since I'd been able to hold a pen, I'd thought writing would be part of my life, but I never thought I'd ultimately major in English, teach English, and write poems instead of prose. Not until my first college creative writing class, and my discovery of Gary Gildner's poem "First Practice," did I entertain the notion that poetry might be something I could be good at. And not until seven years later, after the graduate-school grind, did I first start to think that I could be, someday, a serious poet. Luckily, I became one. My first poetry acceptance was in a typed, mimeographed, and staple-bound magazine out of Lexington, Kentucky called Pegasus
. I was thrilled. The poem was a kiss-off to a complicated friend, written in faithful blank verse and tercets. I was big stuff. Over the next few years, I transformed from a dabbler to a practitioner, learning craft, reading more widely, and, eventually, gaining courage and sending out work more often. And I found that as I kept at the practice, my work started to get accepted more often. I've now been seriously immersed for over 20 years.
I came to the editorial side only seven years ago, as poetry editor for The Chattahoochee Review.
In that time, I have read perhaps 10,000 submissions of poetry and have gained much insight into the delicate, frustrating, unnerving process of sending one's work into the world from the other side of the desk. I have continued to write and submit my own work as well, publishing a poetry collection in 2013 and presently assembling a second manuscript. My editorial experience informs my writing and submitting experience, and vice versa.
These days, I role-play and shape-shift a lot more than before. Yesterday I wore two different hats. First, my writer's hat: I revised and trimmed a poem I'd recently revived, and I thought I might have something ready to send out. Second, my submitter's hat: I sent batches of poems to three different journals, made notes of other journals' reading periods, thought of the journals I'd like to see my work in, and imagined their editors: What is a good poem for them? How do they're know if they're reading that poem? How do they know they like it?
Later this week I will wear my editor's hat. I will comb the poetry submissions for TCR
, read the notes left by my fellow readers, and continue winnowing toward a vision of the poetry in our next issue: resonances, echoes, themes, obsessions. I will read many poems five, ten, twenty times. I will weigh our faculty readers' opinions and my fellow editors' opinions with mine. All along, I will engage the same questions: What is a good poem for TCR
? How do I know if I'm reading that poem? How do I know I like it?
Anything I say under my editor's hat is supplemented (sometimes contradicted) by what I say under my writer's or submitter's hat. The eminent Heather McHugh once advised me, as I wore my writer's hat, "Write for your own best reader." Who is that? Well...a carbon copy of my best self: same sense of humor, generosity, interests, quirks. As I write a new poem or revise an existing one, I think of you reading it (or perhaps weighing its merits for publication), and I revise in hopes that you will understand every word, connect with it, even smile or nod in recognition. As editor, when I read a poem you send me, I imagine you the writer as I sense you imagine me the editor; perhaps it's hubristic, but I like to think of me the editor as your best reader. As submitter, I imagine myself-as-editor as another editor who I don't know and may never meet: how to bridge that divide?
All of this is to say that I, the editor, empathize with you, the writer. I have been you; I am you. I know firsthand the sting of a rejection notice and the frustration of a long wait before notification. I also know the elation of having a piece accepted, and I wish this feeling happened more often.
I also know that the editorial process is not capricious (at least, not with editors whose hearts are in the right place), but it can be mysterious. Rodney Jones tells of a time he submitted poems to a reputable journal and got declined. He forgot to make a note of the submission and, a year or so later, submitted the same poems to the same journal. In the interim, the journal had changed editors. The new editor promptly accepted two of the poems from the same submission.
Alongside the mystery, though, are some tangible facts. TCR's
acceptance rate across all genres is about 3-4%. In any given issue are poetry, fiction, nonfiction, reviews, and interviews. Space is limited, and there's a lot of competition. We get about 2000 fiction submissions per year: about 15-20 of those get published. About 2200 poetry submissions per year: about 40-50 get published. About 300 nonfiction: about 10. Therefore, a piece we accept should be ready to go. We will often request edits, but usually for pieces we have first accepted.
We like to be surprised and delighted. Surprise and delight can come in many forms: a turn of phrase, a fresh use of a familiar conceit, a voice that places the poem in bold relief, a journey to a destination we don't expect. Sometimes the familiar is turned upside down, sometimes not. The general feeling, though, is that we're in a land we haven't been before. And we are eager to have our tastes and assumptions challenged.
We are human beings, and human beings are, at last report, imperfect. A piece for TCR
is not necessarily a piece for someone else, and vice versa. It is common for our poetry readers to disagree about a piece's fit for us. Even a piece that may be a fit for us we may not accept: we don't have enough room; we've already taken a poem with a similar theme, voice, or perspective; we've published the author a lot in the past; or the work may survive one round of reading but not a second. More often, the work just misses the mark. Whatever the case, our "decline" letter emphasizes that the submitted work is simply not a good fit, and that is as simply and honestly as we can state it. Getting accepted or declined is often a matter of taste, timing, and luck.
Know, however, that all submissions are read at least twice before a further decision is made. We don't always read every page of every submission, but we read enough to know whether a piece fits our needs. Sometimes we know after one page or a single poem. Sometimes we know only after we read two, three, ten times. Know, too, that TCR i
s staffed by full-time college faculty: editors, readers, designers. All of our editors and readers teach writing, which means all submissions are read by readers with extensive experience. And know that TCR's
current average response time for poetry is around two months. Often it's faster. As compared with other similar journals, this is quite good.
Every editor says this, but it's true: the best way to know what we like is to buy a copy of our publication or read a few of the linked pieces on our website: http://chattahoocheereview.gsu.edu
. Of course, we would also love for you to subscribe. We publish two packed issues every year: an un-themed single issue in the spring, and a themed double issue in fall/winter. Our masthead reads "Exporting the South, Importing the World." Your challenge is to find how your work illustrates and/or talks back to that mission statement.
Basho: "Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water." The shape-shifting writer, submitter, and editor in me urges you to read, write, and submit more. One activity feeds the others. Once you've submitted work, much of the rest is out of your hands--so find regular time to stay in practice and keep your hand in the game, whether that's reading a few poems online, reading a book by a poet you haven't encountered before, starting a new draft, or sending to a journal you'd like to see your work in. This is the part of the process you have control over: the work, the practice, the improvement, the joy.
Michael Diebert is poetry editor for The Chattahoochee Review
and the author of the collection Life Outside the Set.
He teaches writing and literature at Perimeter College, Georgia State University.