You don’t know me; or, The Art of Submissions

I got a testy rejection letter the other day, advising me essentially to “read the damn journal.” Oops. I thought I had, but indeed when I went back and reviewed the contents, the submission instructions, the “about” page, I discovered that the mix of poems I sent was pretty much exactly wrong for this journal.

They specifically state they’re not into political nor spiritual poems, and three of the five poems in the group I sent could definitely fit into those categories. I would argue they are not entirely or exclusively “political” or “spiritual,” but still, I can see why a harried first reader would shove the whole packet of them aside as “not quite right for us.” Also many of the poems in the magazine are in what I think of as the stop-making-sense tradition, and the editor also writes in that mode. Although I have poems that are less logically sound than others, the poems I sent to that magazine are definitely more organized and logical than the editors might be attracted to.

My bad, as they say. I feel quite ashamed, in truth, as I’m usually pretty careful to try to align what I perceive as the sensibility of a magazine or publisher to what I send. Although I do sometimes get in the devil-may-care mode of just sending stuff out because a deadline is here and hey, who knows.

It takes time and patience to become familiar with a target market’s sensibilities, which anyway are often fairly broad. It can be confusing. Usually if I see one poem that looks like something I could have written, I feel assured. But really it’s better to see three or four such poems to be confident that someone on the editorial staff might look kindly on my submission. Or three or four books from a particular publisher that might be in the mode of what I write. Also, editorial staff change and tastes change, so I also have to be on top of that, updating my library of lit mags and new publications from my favorite publishers.

And I need to be aware of the range of my own work, and have at least in my head a general categorization of the poems, from clear logic to looseygoosey, from easily categorizable as, e.g., “political” or “spiritual,” although in general I try to write stuff that can’t be quite so pigeonholed, so safely uncategorizable.

Sometimes I weary of the research, which means I either do what I did, that is, send inappropriately, or, often, I put off the submission work to another day when I might have the time and patience to sift through the target mags.

Anyway, dear editorial staff, I am genuinely sorry to have wasted your time. I know it’s a big pain. The good news is it’s going to be a while until you hear from me again, so I can make sure my name has faded off the list of authors who clearly didn’t read the damn journal.

I am my own ragged company: or, Waiting for Responses to Submissions

Aaarrrghghg, this process of trying to get published is slower than glacial time. I swear  there are some submissions so slow they deserve to be named as an epoch. The Doyouwantitornotean Eon, the Shootmenowocene.

As I paw through my list of submissions I see many have been out for 6 months, 8 months. One video submission will have been out for a year soon. I queried them 4 months ago and they asked for — this is a new one — a copy of the text. That was the last I heard from them.

How do we not LOSE OUR SHIT?

There are too many poets! one person cries. There are too many litmags! says another. You should just be content working on your writing, some jerk opines. I’m okay with six-month turnarounds, says no one, ever.

And yes, I know: “labor of love,” “all volunteers,” “volume of submissions,” etcetera.

I know I should keep just rolling them out there. I certainly know I should stop obsessively brooding at the list, counting and recounting how many submissions are out there and how long each of them have been lingering. But man, it’s hard to gumption up for new rounds of submission knowing everything just sits there like toads on a swamp edge on a sunny day.

Oh, wait — just got an email from one of my litmag submissionees.

Rejection.

Be careful what you wish for.

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.

Help Me If You Can; or On the Stages of Project Completion

Sometimes when I’ve just “finished” a project, I get all bouncily excited. I can’t wait to get it out into the world, CERTAIN that the world will be AGOG. At times like this I wish someone would gently wrest the “Send” button from my hand.

If I do excitedly send the fresh, new piece, fortunately it takes so long for most places to respond that the rejection letters come less as a knife to the heart of Tigger as a knife to the heart of, say, Kanga, perhaps, or Roo, or, depending on the day, Eeyore.

If I’m a sensible bear, I’ll put the piece aside. I’ll come back to it later and HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT IT. Then I’ll put it aside again and later come to it with a more measured response. Although if I wait too long, I’ll get too Wol-ish about it all, and that can be insufferable.

So, having just finished a couple of pieces about which I’m WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC, I’m going to try to breathe through the bouncy part, and try to put my new pieces aside for a while. I’m hoping to get fairly quickly back to my usual, Piglettish state: slightly worried, somewhat confused.

The Hardest Part; or, Aspects of the Writing Life

There are many facets of the writing life. I thought it might be useful to log some of the major ones. Living the examined life, you know. Here are some aspects of the writing life:
– There’s the “get a job so you can pay the rent” part.
– The “find the time and psychic space to do it” part.
– The “have absolutely nothing in your head and wander around the house aimlessly” part.
– The self-recriminating “how can I be a writer if I don’t write” part.
– The “have ideas but can’t quite seem to figure out how to get them on the page” part.
– There’s the “write a bunch of stuff” part.
– The “what is all this crap?” part.
– There’s the tinkering, the taking out and putting back in and moving things around part, which sometimes happens only in the head; sometimes you manage to do it on the page, and it’s fun. That part.
– There’s the “this is brilliant” part.
– The “oh, wait, no, this is dreadful” part.
– There’s the “hm, I like this” part.
– There’s the research into what literary magazines and publishers might like the work part.
– The sending out and sending out and paying fees for the privilege of getting someone’s attention to your work for five freaking minutes part.
– The looking back at what you sent out to which lit mag/publisher and the “why on earth would I send them THIS” part.
– There’s the petty jealousies, the eye rolling, the “are you freaking kidding me, THIS got published” part.
– There’s the “this person’s work is so brilliant I don’t know why I even bother” part. With its corollary, the “I quit writing forever” part.
– There’s the waiting, the waiting, the wayayaiting.
– There’s the “okay, I can’t just keep checking email and mail every five minutes on the chance one of the twenty-five places that have my work will get back to me finally; I HAVE to get back to work” part.
– The acceptance! Hee hee hee! Perhaps a small dance. That part.
– The seeing it print! but can’t reread it yet another time because you’re sick to death of it just check to make sure that is in fact your name beneath it part.
– There’s the forcing yourself to the page part and starting something new part, anything, anything at all.
– The vital necessity of dealing with that dangling cobweb or smudge on the refrigerator door you’ve been ignoring for a week part, with its corollary: the vital necessity of mopping the kitchen floor right now part; with its corollary above, the wander around the house aimlessly part.

So to all of you living the writing life, huzzah. May some parts linger longer than others! As for me, I’ve got some cobweb wrangling to do.

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.

Start Me Up; or Making the Best of my Worst

I have a jealous nature. Among other faults. And I’ve long castigated myself for it, talking myself down from agitation toward something more Zen, counseled myself over and over to be grateful for what I have, to be less concerned with what others are up to, to be, generally, different than I am. But recently I’ve come to re-understand my state. I have realized that my jealousy acts as fuel for my fire. After a few moments of intransigent, ill-tempered, frowny-faced, crossed-arm fuming, I find those little needles and pesky twigs ignite my energies. I peruse the awful pages of Awards and Deadlines in Poets & Writers full of winners that are not me. I hear someone gleefully announce an opportunity I want to have, an award I’d like to win, a publisher I’d like to call my own. Russinfrussindagnabit, I’ll mutter. Or words to that effect. Then I find I sit back down to the work required to get such opportunity, win such a win, snag such a publisher. I write more, send more work out, audaciously apply for things I have no reason to believe I’ll get. It’s a boon, this jealousy. A vehicle. Vroom vroom. So go on and achieve, ya bahstids. I’m coming after you.