One of the hardest jobs an editor has to do is say no to the majority of submissions that cross their desk. Yes, that’s right: the majority.
There are a lot of reasons for this, many of which we include in our responses to hopeful poets whose work we decline: poem is not in a style we publish, it’s out of season, it’s already available all over the internet. But by far the biggest reason for declining work is that the poems aren’t ready.
For aspiring poets who have given us work that they feel is wonderful stuff, a result of their own passion and vision, this is a hard realization. But it is the most important realization that must be acknowledged if a poet is ever to graduate to the status of published poet. We are so disappointed when we read a piece that shows great promise, but the end feels slapped on or as if the poet just ran out of steam and the piece dwindles away. Or if a poet hasn’t found the right words, settling instead for vague descriptors: beautiful, lovely, awesome, big, small, dark, standard. You get the not-a-picture. Passive voice, too many adjectives or adverbs instead of specific verbs, exclamation points or ellipses in place of better word choice – these all kill poems. Too many words when just a few will do drag the reader down; distilling the poem to the only words necessary is a must.
You know what you have to do. Really. You may have even heard this before.
Share your work with people who have language skills and an ear for rhythm. Hear critiques as the helpful tools they are rather than as harsh criticism. Return to the work with a commitment to making it better and stifle any reactionary cry that this work is simply beyond the understanding of those who said no to it. People who offer critiques and people who serve as editors do their work out of love for language and a hope that they will help people be the best artist they can be. No one does this to kill dreams as far as we know.
Read poetry. Read more. And read more after that. Choose poetry that is published where you would like to be published. We can’t stress this idea enough. Here at Gyroscope Review, we are occasionally surprised by a submission that tries to use old English or has a Victorian tone, neither of which fit a contemporary journal. Acquire books of poetry by those who produce the kind of work that interests you. Are you hoping to be a contemporary poet? Then aside from reading Gyroscope Review, go read Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Claudia Rankine, James Longenbach, Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong. Find the Button Poetry YouTube channel and hear what is being produced right now. Search for contemporary poets on the Poetry Foundation’s website. There are many options for finding published work that fits any interest.
Remember that poets do not live in a vacuum, that poetry is an art that poets work at and hone. Anyone can produce underdeveloped art that cannot connect with an audience. Not everyone is in love with poetry enough to break through to that accomplished space where the work is accepted for publication.
There is no shame in learning that poetry is not your calling. But if you choose to continue on the path of the poet, then enough humility to know that all of us on this path keep learning and improving, keep listening and observing, is essential. Think of this as your graduation speech in this month of graduations all over the country. Your education as a poet is only beginning. It is up to you to make use of it.
Gyroscope Review’s reading period for the 2018 summer issue closes on June 15.
The summer issue will be available on July 1.
The reading period for the fall issue opens on July 1.
The reading period for the special fall themed section, “The Crone”, also opens for women, and people who identify as women, who are over the age 50 on July 1.
Images courtesy of Pixabay.com
This is the End, My Friend: How to not get a poem rejection
I realize poets don’t get much feedback on their rejections. I wanted to address some common problems we see that can get your poem rejected from our slush. The biggest thing we are seeing is an ending that just falls flat. The poem is chugging along with some good imagery and turns of phrase, and then the end goes to the easy conclusion. It wants to wrap everything up with a pretty bow.
We ask that you take the bow and stuff it in the trash. Shred it into confetti. We want an ending that leaves us thinking. That leaves us with a feeling there is more to the poem than is being said here. That makes us want to read it all over again. Not to say we should have to spend a lot of time puzzling out the ending. No one wants that. It’s a balancing act.
Perhaps your poem should have stopped a stanza before the end. We see a lot of this. There is a nice turn of phrase or image that would be a perfect end to the poem, but in the rush to get to a conclusion, any conclusion, it’s overlooked. Examine your poem carefully. What’s been said before? Do you have a new way of saying it? Does your ending border on cliché? If it’s an elegy, does it end on the maudlin?
Where to stop when writing a poem is tough. Always go back to asking, what do I want the reader to take away from this poem? What is going to be the reader’s last impression? Sometimes the first line would better serve as a last line. I know, I know, then you have to come up with another kick ass first line. You can do it. It’s what got you excited about the poem in the first place. Try and recapture that feeling at the end of the poem. Because if you aren’t excited about your final words, the reader isn’t going to be either. Flex those poetry muscles. End strong.
So, you are overcome with the urge to pen a poem. You were inspired by the sunrise, sunset, your last date, the neighbor’s new puppy, the snow, footprints in the sand, a romantic movie, or [fill in your favorite inspiration here]. Words flow, flowery, full of adjectives and adverbs.
Alternatively, that last political debate got to you. You’re incensed by Trump, Clinton, Cruz, Sanders, Rubio, [choose your least favorite politician]. The latest news from Syria or Afghanistan inflames you, the last shooting disarms you. You are driven to your keyboard to unleash the rant to end all rants, damn it, and make sure they (whoever they are) see reason before it’s too late. Then you shape that rant into quatrains or couplets or a long train of free verse.
Either way, you’ve gotten your thoughts into a form you now call a poem.
We all know that great feeling of brainstorming a piece of verse, getting down all those things that have us swirling. And sometimes it feels like we have to send it out right now, before it cools off, before is loses its glow and we lose our nerve. A writer might be so anxious to call themselves a poet that they haven’t taken the time to read, to observe and settle into their thoughts, to probe and probe some more until a gem is discovered. The heat of the moment sweeps them away and takes their ability to discern good verse from knee-jerk reaction along with it.
Creating a decent poem is a process. Sometimes, it’s a long process that involves intense immersion in some relevant piece of the larger cultural conversation that goes on around us every moment. For example, we get plenty of submissions here at Gyroscope Review that recap some current event. We have received poems about hunger, poverty, refugees, David Bowie’s death, technology, and politicians. Those submissions mean something to the poets who sent them, but often those same submissions get rejected because they don’t do anything more than tell us what we already read online or in newspapers or heard on the evening news. They don’t take the reader deeper into a space where thoughtful and delicate teasing out of what this all could mean happens. Why is this important? Why has it captured the poet’s attention and why should the reader care? What are the larger metaphors and historical lessons? What does this say about humanity?
We also get plenty of submissions about love and loss and death and grief. Poets lay themselves open, reveal their hearts’ desires both realized and thwarted, and send it off. What often kills the piece for us is that there is nothing new in that poem. Nothing we haven’t seen. And then we wonder whether the submitter has read widely on these topics to see how other poets handle them. What separates the rejected work from the poems that see publication?
Revision. Revision. And revision.
Successful poems reflect life, and they also question it, probe it, turn it over and compare different facets. They keep their focus, but draw from a range of experiences and images. Successful poems respect the reader by offering ideas and feelings without telling the reader what to think. This does not happen in one sitting.
How do you get a poem from brainstorm to publication? Here is one suggested path.
1. After your brainstorm, let the poem sit for a while.
2. When you return to the piece, read it through and ask yourself what you want to focus on. You might have more than one poem in that brainstormed piece.
3. Do you need to do any research about your focus? This is particularly relevant when writing about current events. Make sure you know what you’re talking about and you understand the backstory. This can only add depth to the evolving poem.
4. It’s okay to throw in everything about that focus and then choose the strongest bits as you go through the revision process. Choose your imagery carefully and deliberately.
5. Once you have the images and overall idea you want to include, work on that language. Strong verbs. Few adjectives or adverbs. Take a hint from the poet Mary Oliver, who said, “Every adjective and adverb is worth five cents. Every verb is worth fifty cents.” (p. 90, A Poetry Handbook. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1994.)
6. Does the language you chose fit the topic? Is it understandable, clear? Obscure poems don’t pull readers in. Poet Ted Kooser puts it well: “Poetry’s purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts. If a poem doesn’t make sense to anybody but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it.” (p. xi, The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.)
7. Look at the line breaks and white space. Does the way the words flow mimic the feeling you want? Have you allowed space for the reader to pause and let the words sink in?
8. Does your ending answer or somehow return to what you offered up in the beginning of the poem? Is it strong or does it sort of dribble away?
9. Let the poem sit some more and return to step four.
10. Let someone else read the piece and comment. Do not freak out. We all need honest readers who will tell us what works and what doesn’t. Better for a reader to point out gaps and necessary tweaks than for an editor to reject your work; editors usually don’t tell you why.
11. Let the poem sit some more and return to step four.
12. Keep revising until it feels right. Mary Oliver claimed to revise her work 40-50 times. Don’t be afraid to toss out a poem that isn’t working.
13. If you’ve gotten this far, then what are you waiting for? Find somewhere to submit your revised work.
There are online writers communities and plenty of books that talk about the writing process, especially revision. All you have to do is Google either one. But the real work of writing happens when the writer is alone with the poem, when there is quiet space and time for creativity to show itself without competing for attention. Don’t be afraid to disconnect from the very world about which you write.
You just might surprise yourself.