I’ve made a few; or, On Imperfection and Finding Mistakes Too Late in a Manuscript; or, Oops

Welp, I found a  mistake in my newly released chapbook. Oops.

I even sort of remember now what happened. In this chapbook I have poems, but also a running essay across the bottom of each page. I tried to, in some degree, have the sections of essay have some kind of reflection on the poem with which it shares the page. I think I took out a poem, then had to figure out how to rejigger the essay. But then I revised the essay, and needed to juggle the sections, but couldn’t figure out how to re-cut the sections effectively. So I set it aside to think about further, and stuck as a placeholder a copy of one of the sections.

And the brain being the ragged blanket it is, I never went back.

And in the processes of revision and proofreading, I never ended up reviewing the actual essay in one read-through from front to back, only in a page by page. Somehow it escaped me that one section of the essay is repeated twice.

It could be said that the repetition does serve as an emphasis on that particular passage, perhaps the most central passage of the essay. The shift of poem does add a slightly different coloration on each segment. That in itself is sort of interesting. Yeah, that’s it. I meant to do it that way.

Still, I feel very foolish, as it is such an incredibly obvious error. And I’m a professional proofreader! But, that said, my publisher didn’t find it either. Anyway. What is the lesson here?

Happily, my first response when I found it was to laugh. My second was to shrug. Oh well. Shit, as they say, happens.

I do know that after spending much time with a piece of work, especially a whole manuscript, a veil seems to lower over the thing. I can’t see the trees, can barely make out the forest. It seems a blur of what it has been, what it has become, what it might have been, what I perhaps had intended but since have forgotten. I can’t even answer questions about work after the veil has fallen. People ask me what I meant by things and I just make stuff up on the spot. At some point the work becomes no longer mine but something that has escaped into the world.

That’s why we need copyeditors and proofreaders. Long may they reign. Or rein, as the case may be, as in “in.” Sometimes rain, as in “on the parade.”

But how freeing it is not be upset by a mistake. I mean, I didn’t back over the neighbor’s cat. Nothing was injured or killed in the making of this mistake. This is less a mistake, in some perspective, as an imperfection. The stakes are not particularly high, here. I don’t think the Pulitzer Prize committee will even notice. This is not one of those errors that will haunt me in some 4:00 a.m. self-hatred session.  And believe me, I have made some of those kinds of mistakes. To be able to look at an error and think, well, look at you, being human, is a very nice thing. Mistakes are made. The book as a whole I think is interesting, diverting, creative. Not to mention the gorgeous cover. So. What’s a little imperfection among friends?

So there we are. Live and learn. Now read up.

Down to the Crossroads; or, Confidence and the Editing Process

I’ve gotten a couple of acceptances just recently that I’m very pleased about. And it has also thus far been a year of many rejections. I have certain pieces I’ve really believed in that just keep getting rejected over and over again, and I’m losing my confidence. Do I really know how to assess my own work? Am I just wrong?

My rational self says, “Yes, sometimes you’re wrong. But sometimes,” it assures, “you’re not wrong. It’s just that this is the game — send stuff out, get it rejected, repeat.”

But, I argue, how do I know when I’m right and when I’m wrong?

Rational Self says, “Oh, um…is that the phone? I think I hear the phone. Gotta go…”

I’m in this place of doubt — not necessarily doubt about my work, but doubt about my ability to understand what in the work is working. And what isn’t. I know I’ve been here before. I know the mood has passed. I don’t know if I had discovered some way out of this fog, or whether it’s just time, and distraction. I’ve forgotten. I know I come back to two things: that time is the best editor; and that there is something at gut-level that knows things about my work. But when time and gut still says it likes a work that has been getting rejected for years? I know I’ve written in this very space about honing one’s own editorial sense. But can I really believe myself? I dunno.

Rational Self rolls her eyes.

The editing process takes inner calm, perspective, and confidence. This is especially true when it comes to “knowing” that something is ready to send out. My own process is too often to send stuff out too soon, get it back rejected, and suddenly see a new editing angle. But hey, it’s a process. But there are some times in which I just can’t muster up the guts to do good editing on my own work, or see it with a sufficiently cold eye. (And I do think there are some of my works that I’ll just never get perspective on. I’m just going to love their flawed selves and that’s it. I’ll tuck them into a manuscript somehow or incorporate them into a visual project maybe. But I won’t abandon them to my C-level folder! I won’t!)

A friend of mine who breeds and raises dogs talks about puppy panic periods: something a puppy did without fear a day before suddenly turns it into a whites-around-the-eyes, stiff-legged-no-way-I-ain’t-doin’-that trembling mess, and pretty soon pretty much everything freaks it out. The periods generally only last a few days, although the puppy might have another such period some time later in its development. I think I have puppy panic periods throughout my whole life. Different things set me off at different times (there are some things, of course, that set me off EVERY time). (Spider!) I think I must be in one now.

Time will move me off this, and I’ll regain my self-confidence, and/or regain some perspective on those pieces that have received consistent rejections, and/or continue to believe in them beyond all reason. Right now, though, I’m going to just sit here quietly for a while.

That’s not a spider over there, is it?


How Do I Know?; or, Learning to Assess Our Own Work

I encounter again the ubiquitous “Send us your best work” bullshit advisement on the submission page of a literary magazine. Listen. I have never looked at a poem and thought, “Okay, well, this is mediocre, I think I’ll send it to x literary magazine.” Have never read through a manuscript and thought, “Oh, well, this is better than some of the crap out there, I think I’ll send it to x publisher.”

You bastards, I AM sending you what I think, at that moment, is my best work.
…I think…

Do I read it a week after I’ve sent it out and think, “Holy crap, what was I thinking?” Sometimes.

Do I get your rejection back and think, “But this is the best work I’ve ever done and you STILL won’t take it?” Sometimes.

Do I get your rejection back and think, “Hm, well, I think you were right about that”? Sometimes.

The big question is how do we know when our work is at its best. How do we develop within ourselves an adept critical eye.

No, really, that’s a question. Please tell me: How do I develop within myself an adept critical eye?

Again, not to pound this point, but, well, to pound this point, time is a wonderful filter.
If only I would listen to myself and not get overexcited by a new piece and start sending it out in the first blush of blind optimism.

I think I’m going to create a new folder called Hold It! (I’m a great creator of folders…) and put in it every new poem I’m excited about, and I’m not allowed to look at them until at least a month after I’ve put it in the folder. AT LEAST a month. Six months is probably better.

In six months I’m a different person than I was six months before — new skin, blood, colon, fingernails, as cells replace themselves throughout the body at varying rates. So surely the new me will have some fresh insight.

But I’ll have the same eyeballs, though, and mostly the same brain, but new neuronal networks. So in order to shove myself along developmentally, as the pink-faced new poems cool their heels in the Hold It! folder, I should work on my eyesight and my memories. Which means to me that I should read more and widely in poetry especially, and when I find a poem that makes me say “wow, that is good work,” spend some time taking a look at how it works at working. But also other kinds of written work, because all kinds of literature can feed perspective. And I should also look at art, listen to music. And probably dance a little, even if it’s just in my kitchen.

All these kinds of inputs have the possibility of opening my brain to new ways of seeing, new ways of communicating, new ways to imagine. So when I open that folder again, I can see with altered vision and new light.

Once I do look at the poem again, I should also question myself harder. What do I mean here? This is all very fine sounding, but is it more than sound and fancy? Have I dug deep enough into the initiating impulse behind this poem? Do I even remember what I thought I was writing toward? If I’ve forgotten, what, then, presents itself to me in this poem, and is it interesting? Does energy spark and fade throughout the poem? Inquire of that movement: why does it shift, how can I make the whole thing spark and arc? Inquire of every stinking word. Does it belong, does it add, does it move, does it shimmer, does it hold water?

Ugh, with such big questions, I fear I may never open up the Hold It! folder again. Wasn’t it easier just to love the poem and ship it out and take the rejections as they came?


An Accounting; or, Writing Submissions by the Numbers

The end of the year is closing in, as is my birthday, and I often do a year in review for myself. This year I also did a submissions review. What have I been up to? Well, apparently “up to” a lot of reading fee payments.

In 2018, I spent $350 on contest entry/publisher reading fees from which I received bupkus.

Clearly I did not spend enough money — more entries should equal more acceptances. No. Clearly I spent too much money — I got zero return on my investment, so it was a bad investment. No. Clearly I have no idea what is reasonable and how to think about entry fees.

One of those contest entries resulted in not a win but an offer to publish a poem in the publisher’s online magazine. So I guess that’s something.

I sent out 30 lit mag submissions from which I received 3 acceptances. In spite of the sturm und drang all those rejections caused, the big picture is somewhat cheering.

But I thought I had submitted more than that. There are a handful I haven’t counted because I haven’t gotten a response yet. So by the end of the year, I think I’ll be at 35 magazine submissions. Will I eke out another acceptance? Given my usual ROI, I doubt it.

Most of those were online submissions for which I paid nothing. One was a $2 fee that I now bitterly regret paying, as it was for nought and was against my better judgment and my general refusal to pay online submission fees. A couple were mail-in submissions, with postage well below the $2 fee many lit mags are charging, plus I can walk to the post office, so I get some exercise out of it.

I got one paid reading gig, and I sold some books out of my own store, so made a little money. I gave a couple of workshops. My little paid book review gig garnered me a tiny sum. Not that I’m in it for the money, but if I’ve got to lay out some dough, I want to get some back in once in a while.

And so it goes. This in no way addresses the qualitative pleasures (and pains) of being a writer — I enjoyed so many things, camaraderie, experiences, experimentation and play, am proud of the work I did, happy to have gotten my work into some venues. But sometimes I have to step back and just look at the numbers with an eye toward how to conduct the po biz in the coming year.

Intentions: Double my submissions next year.

Should I pay more in entry fees? I don’t think so. This amount made me gulp, but it supports a variety of publishers I want to support, and that feels supportive of my work, whether it got accepted or not.

Is it all worth it? Can’t I just be content making work?
No. I want it out there. I want it read or viewed. I want it appreciated. Or criticized, or whatever.

Yeah, I know, friends, that I get down at the mouth throughout the year. But I also feel buoyed sometimes, amused often, engaged in my work, and hopeful. Do I fail to mention that? Remind me to mention that.

I sometimes get the sense from people that they think I should be content just making the work, that there’s some kind of purity in that. That the search for publication success is somehow a sullied enterprise. Egotistical, perhaps. Or at best, a fool’s errand.
I say, it’s part of the artistic process — do the work, put it out into the world, take your shots and huzzahs as they come. Complain bitterly along the way; dance foolishly around with glee. It’s all part of the equation.

Long, Winding; or, Getting Published

I am traveling, which is fun, surprising, frustrating, pleasant, extremely unpleasant, invigorating, exhausting, a privilege, a self-inflicted curse, the whole gamut. While I’ve been gadding about, through the miracle of modern communication systems, I’ve received word that although not a winner, I was a finalist in a contest, and also received two more outright rejections for my work. And so it goes, says the narrator watching the journey of Billy Pilgrim. I often, in the grim thick of it, wonder why I travel, and why I try to get my work published. I can’t explain either, except for some complex cocktail of ego, hubris, drive, curiosity, and this need to connect, perhaps. We sat by a tidal river in a funky little place that was playing Steely Dan, BB King, Supertramp, and ate crustaceans that we don’t usually eat, bristling with claws and exoskeleton, toasting Anthony Bourdain’s memory. We left hungry but feeling like we’d accomplished a small thing, as I felt when I heard of my finalist spot. Staying home is nice too. Not doing the research required to send work out, not girding the loins for the inevitable rejections, just either doing the writing or doing something else entirely — that’s nice too. But before long I start listening keenly to others’ tales, pore over maps, surf the Poets &Writers deadline pages, pack my bags and set out. Again and again. That’s the only Way.

Oil and Water; or On Feeling Heartened…If Not Entirely Optimistic…

As I’ve written before, I have a love/hate relationship with the magazine Poets & Writers (Fear and Loathing on the Publication Trail: https://wp.me/pCJhS-1L), wreaking as it does in me the havoc of hope and despair with each turn of the page. But what a wonderful little jolt I got from an article in the most recent issue.

In “On the Trail,” Mary Allen meditates on rejection, writing, and faith. She writes: “If writing gets too tied up in ego, or in the desire for approval, faith can get lost. I have an inking that for writers, faith resides inside the act of writing itself — that if you stop writing for any stretch of time you’ll lose your faith, and if you lose your faith for any reason, the act of writing will lose its luster in your mind. And all the allure and appeal and belief that writing is a sensible, worthwhile endeavor will leave you, and you’ll be depressed, disheartened, deflated — because you will have lost the very thing that keeps you going.”

I had been feeling that very thing — depressed, disheartened — and know in some ways it is an ego thing (when I announced to my writing group that I was in the slough of despond, their only reaction was along the lines of “Still?”), okay, in ALL ways it is an ego thing. And Allen prods me to get back to business.

Even if I think I have nothing to say, I need to say stuff anyway — what I see, what I imagine, what I remember, or just words for the sheer glorious sound of them.

I tire of toiling in obscurity but it’s not the obscurity that’s important but the toil. Toil is etymologically from the idea of crushing something (namely, olives, way back when), and I like that. And obscure only means, after all, cover. And a camera obscura is a dark room in which a fine image can be projected.


All I Have Is Empty Pockets Now; or, The Submission Fee Dilemma

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a full length and a chapbook length collection of poetry submitted out hither and yon for rejection — I mean, for publication. (I mean, “publication!” — positive thinking requires exclamation points, don’t you think?) Then just recently while thinking about a recent poem I wrote, I realized it sort of fit with a few other older poems that I still like. And they fit with some other drafts of poems that I’m interested in. And suddenly, I think I have another chapbook!

I greeted this realization with a groan. I can’t afford to have another chapbook!

I’m spending hundreds of dollars on the two I have, each contest, reading fee, sucking at my pocket.

How much is it worth spending on any one manuscript? To torture myself, I totted up how much I’ve spent on the full length manuscript, which started its life as a chapbook, which I also sent out a bit as I was working it outward into full length. A lot of money. At what point do I give it up as good money thrown after bad, a lost cause?

At some point (soon!), I will focus on sending only to publishing companies with free open calls. But I know I can’t do that until about half the poems are published, according to conventional wisdom. But that’s getting expensive too! My list of target lit mags to send to is rapidly diminishing as I refuse to pay reading fees. (Yes, yes, I know the arguments for supporting lit mags with reading fees, and yes, in theory I support the idea, but in reality, it’s budget busting. I buy individual print-based magazines and books at the bookstore.) So I need to do some research and revamp my lit mag list.

If one believes, and I do, that part of the equation of being a writer is having a reader, and if one suspects, and I do, that a more well known publishing company offers the opportunity to have your work read by more readers, or reviewed toward that end, and possibly put you in touch with a wider range of other writers who may inspire or offer collaborative or other kinds of interesting opportunities, then to some degree I have to do this forking forking-out dough to get my work considered.

Or, at least, I think I do.

But for how long? How much? Or do I rethink the whole enterprise?

I’ll pay someone to tell me.

New Notes from a First Round Reader

It’s that time of year again, and I am wading through the entries. Here’s how it works with this publisher: They amass a cadre of first round readers for this full-length poetry manuscript prize, then randomly assign 20-25 titles to each person. Our assignment: Find only a handful to recommend on to the second round readers. The few, intrepid second round readers then choose one or two from their piles to recommend up to The Final Committee, who hash it all out in some hidden corner of the world until the white smoke rises on a new winner.

Here’s the thing: I have an aesthetic. There are kinds of poetry I am highly unlikely to connect with.  There are topics I tend to be bored with. That being said, although I thought no more interesting work can ever be generated at this point, for example, about dead parents, I have found yet a new and inspiring take on the subject. I am always happy to be surprised, happy to be contradicted. I know I have a perspective on poetry that will inevitably exclude collections that others might fall upon gladly and lift to the heavens. I am, at least, aware of my biases, and there are times when I have the sense that a collection might be considered of high merit by someone other than me — in such cases I might throw it back to the editor to suggest someone else read it, or I move it forward in the hopes I’m somehow on track with that intuition, even if the poems themselves are not of great interest to me.

But mostly I just accept that I like what I like, and I’m doing the best I can to remain wide-eyed and open-minded. Ish.

That the publisher has identified a group of readers with varied aesthetic I believe is true, as there are years when the winner is a manuscript I would probably have passed over. This terrifies me, but should be of some comfort to you. When I, yearly, confess my terror to the publisher that my narrow view will fail to catch the Next Great Poet, the publisher waves me off with aplomb, assuring me that they know that good work will be passed over, but that good work also will rise. And there’s always next year.

If your collection is one of those that might fall outside the pie-slice shape of my taste in poetry, I now and publicly apologize. But contests are a crap shoot. You get the first reader you get. That’s why persistence is key. You might send the exact same manuscript to this contest next year and get a more sympathetic reader. It’s just the game.

So, please, I beg you, as a first round reader who knows my limitations, try, try again.

Post-script: Some notes:

– If the instructions say to take out the Acknowledgments, then TAKE OUT THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. That you’ve had a poem published in Poetry is not likely to make me more likely to move your work forward.

– Insert page breaks between your poems. Do not just hit return until a new page appears.

– Don’t do fancy formatting with titles. All that work happens when your manuscript gets accepted and goes to layout, and you’ll just have to strip out the fancy stuff anyway. Don’t underline them or bother to italicize them or indent them or such unless you have some particular reason for doing so.

– As I’ve said in previous posts, make sure every poem kicks ass. The more poems you put into a collection, the more likely it is that you’ll include ones that aren’t as strong as others, which weakens the collection. Remember, there are a lot of poets out there, and a lot of people doing good work, and I’m only supposed to forward a handful of the manuscripts, so in the end, I’m looking for reasons NOT to move your manuscript forward. Don’t give them to me.

Previous posts about this experience:




No Good News: Notes from a Second Round Reader, or Why Judging Poetry Contests Depresses Me

This is a continuation of previous posts called Notes from a First Round Reader. This year, by reason of computer glitch and miscommunication which led to a slight sense of desperation on the part of the publisher, I was asked to be a second round reader. This time I’m to review a dozen or so of the manuscripts that have filtered up from the First Rounders. I’m to pick two or three to be sent up to the Powers That Be. I am one of four people with this task. Terrified with power, I quickly sweep through the first several poems of each manuscript. I more slowly read several more poems in each manuscript. Damn. There is not a damn thing wrong with any of these. If I were to encounter any of them between the covers of a nice looking book, I’d be perfectly content. None of my snarky “Really?”s, none of my “What the…?” or “Are you freaking kidding me?” These are all fine manuscripts. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS? Not only am I going to have trouble picking three, it also means that I now even more profoundly understand the competition when I send my own manuscripts out.

In the face of a dozen perfectly fine manuscripts, I must now try to identify factors that raise a few above the crowd. Now I’m searching for innovative, imaginative approaches — to language, to subject matter, to perspective or approach. I’m looking for something special, new (or, new to me), something to make me say Wow. Mere thoughtful autobiography is not enough, however lovely; musings on motherhood not enough, however, witty or gritty; that death comes to us all — insufficient; the way herons drag desire across a marsh, no; inexplicable juxtapositions of nonsensical utterances however whimsical, nope. I’m looking for guts and invention, for idea and blood.

And all the while I’m nursing a terrible sinking feeling that my poems do NOT yet have that something special, my collections are NOT yet innovative, inventive, or addressing something particularly compelling or in compelling ways. I HAVE TO UP MY GAME. Oh. Large sigh. Damn you, fine poets. Can’t you just go write fiction?


Happy No Year

Here we are in the twilight of 2015. I am fighting the temptation to count up just how many rejections I received — from lit mags for individual poems, for videopoems, from contests for poems or the manuscript for my second collection, from publishers for the manuscript, rejections of panels for conferences, an absence of “tags” to post my poems when that craze had captured Facebook, no to reading offers, no to workshop offers. I know it was a lot. Up until now. In all of this year I have only received one acceptance for my poetry. Fortunately, it was one of the most important acceptances of all — my second collection of poems for publication. It’s hard to make sense of this, actually. Especially since my acceptance came from the same entity that published my first book.  In the face of all this rejection, it seems like no one has any interest in my work but this one organization. What if they’re wrong? But of course, that way lies madness. It’s foolhardy to think a rejection from a lit mag means a rejection of the work in general — or even in specific. Rejection happens for all kinds of reasons, I imagine — from a grumpy reader, to a full roster, to the poems not fitting in some category that an editor was looking for specifically, to just chance. Still. Self-doubt lurks. It does more than lurk. I can see its furry and clawed toes sticking out from beneath the closet door. In the summer we go to a beach my friend calls “The Beach of No.” The list of things you’re not allowed to do at that beach stretches almost as long as the lifeguard chair is high — no running, no throwing footballs, no frisbee, no snorkeling masks, no playing that game where people get on each other’s shoulders and try to push the other person off, no swimming near the boat put-in, no etcetera. Here as light fades on 2015, I feel myself on the shifting sand of The Beach of No, the tide sifting my footing away, but I’m hanging on. I’m hanging on to Yes.