Sunday, March 11, 2007

Submit to Me

In response to this post, Michael Reynolds asked "why give up on sending out magazine submissions?"

To clarify, I do still send work to magazines, but almost exclusively at the invitation of an editor.

I have a few reasons for this. In no particular order:

1) The success rate for unsolicited submissions is low and I don't much like engaging in futile activities. I'd sooner save the postage costs for things I know I'm going to enjoy.

2) The readership of literary journals is small, even with subscriber lists inflated by contest entries, so the occasional success is small potatoes, even by poetry standards.

3) I find the editorial standards of the journals lacking, not only in taste, but in focus. As I said in another post, I rarely find enough good poetry in a journal to want to buy it. If I'm not interested in the magazines, it seems pretty vain, if not hypocritical, to ask to have my work appear in them. If one day you curse a magazine for publishing such boring poems and the next they publish yours, what does it say about your poems? About you? If, on the other hand, an editor goes out of their way to ask you for your work, you at least have some indication that there is an editorial direction, rather than a committee trying to agree on what work offends the sensibilities of the fewest members.

Another related issue is the representation of regional writers in regional journals. In Arc there are a lot of Ottawa poets; in Fiddlehead, a lot of UNB writers, etc. (There are other connections less obvious to the casual reader. For instance, I published a 7-sonnet corona in Fiddlehead a while ago. Their poetry editor asked me for the poem after I read it at UNB; and I was crashing at her house at the time. There's a similar backstory to the publication of three of my poems in Existere. A number of my other publications have been solicited by editors I already knew personally and/or professionally. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, but when the editor has somewhat less-than-critical judgment, it can be.) The disproportionate representation of local writers is clear evidence that there is a strong non-literary bias at work, which mitigates against one's chances of getting published in that magazine if one doesn't have a local connection. Again, a strong editorial bias is not a bad thing, in and of itself--as in the case of an editor asking for a specific poem because s/he liked that poem or for a submission because s/he likes other poems of mine. This is a sign of having editorial discretion and ambition--of having taste, which isn't much evident, one way or t'other in a lot of magazines. But when that bias leans towards non-literary factors, it certainly is a problem. Maybe the outside work being rejected is of equal or lesser merit than the local work being accepted, but a reader should be forgiven for doubting it.

4) Journals tend to publish one or two poems by a poet, which I find generally unsatisfying, unless the poems are exceptionally good, which is rare as lightning. When editors have asked me for work, they have generally published four or more pieces at once.

5) When I used to submit work to magazines, I would often be unhappy with the work by the time it finally appeared in print. When I first started writing, I submitted often to different magazines. As my publication history shows, there's a gap between 2000 and 2004 during which I published almost nothing in any form. This was the point at which I became disenchanted, for the above reasons, with doing things comme if faut and decided not to play the submit-to-me game anymore. To do my writing, read as much as I could and learn the craft without any worry about the scene. I was thinking about having my book self-published, in fact, when interest in my work from a couple of people led to me signing a contract with Insomniac.

6) I think chapbook publication, whether it be by a micro-press or by the writer him- or herself, in combination with public readings, is a far better avenue than journal submissions if you want to test out your work and try to find an audience for it. I continue to publish work in chapbooks and broadsides. And lately, as anyone following my blog can see, I've been publishing new work online. I like to have control over it. If I'm unhappy with some aspect of a poem I've published here, I can edit it or simply delete the post. And I can publish them in audio formats too, which is an important thing for me, but which is impossible in print journals--as well as with most book publishers, though this seems to be changing. It's all in my control. If an editor asks me for any of the poems that I put up here, I'm glad to see them in print, but I don't see the need or benefit of mailing them out with SASEs and holding my breath hoping for a validation that I deem dubious at best. I mean, I haven't even heard of most journal editors, so why should their decision to choose my poem mean much to me?

All this is not to say that no one should send work to magazines. I just think it's a highly overrated means of publishing poetry.

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