Sunday, April 02, 2006

Spreading the Word

For more than a year now I've been dipping into Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry which was one of last year's great finds at the AWP conference in Vancouver. It's a collection of essays by poetry editors of American literary journals published back in 2001. Though not many of the titles will be familiar to Canadian readers, it is enduring and enlightening reading for anyone submitting poems to literary journals anywhere. The big message that comes through here is the amazing volume of submissions the American editors must plough through to find gold. I'd be interested to know how Canadian submission figures compare: anyone out there know?

For example: the then editor of the (somewhat presumptuously named) North American Review, poet Peter Cooley, said he received about twelve thousand poems a year, all of which he read, before choosing the fifty (yes 50) he could publish per year. And that was at least five years ago, so I'd guess the numbers have been elevating since then. Think on them numbers, folks, while you are gazing bleakly upon yet another photocopied rejection slip, and try to feel a little sympathy for the editors and readers at these publications.

On the editor's side, he comments bleakly
"...writing the cover letter appears the major creative act for a poet. Yes, life is tough, we know that. But to hear of the author's abusive parent, recovery through therapy, botched career, tedious job, demanding children, broken dishwasher or car or toilet, dying parent, dead kitten, impotent husband, rat-infested bar, or frigid wife is not to claim my attention…"
Geez. Obviously I have been needlessly terse in my cover letters if this is what other poets have been sending in.

The other thing I've enjoyed about reading this collection is the sample poems each editor chooses to illustrate points of taste; none of the poets included is familiar to me, but the poems, which the editors in some cases discuss in light of their selection process, are enlightening and often dazzling.

There's also mention of editorial meetings where each shortlisted poem is presented and discussed and argued over before being selected. Certainly I had never given much thought to the passion that the selection process can inspire in editorial staff: neither do the rather businesslike form letters that announce most acceptances give us much insight into that realm of things. Anyway, it makes me feel almost privileged to be kept waiting by a journal if I can imagine that the delay is due to my poems being read so closely and passionately (and not just lost in a pile of unread stuff somewhere on someone's desk).

Most of the editors say that they can tell on first reading if there's anything there for them, so a swift rejection is much worse in some ways than a long-postponed one, though it's all the more clear from all the editors that their tastes are subjective, so we still have that to cling to.

For the prose writers out there, there's a fiction version available too: The Whole Story: Editors on Fiction.

On a rather different note, Mary shared this strange Japanese video the other day, which shows you how to peel a potato, and I think it deserves a wider viewing public. I confess to being rather disturbed, however, by the image of mashing what must be a pretty cold spud after its polar dip.


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