Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

The Nature of Publication: Poetry in Literary Journals

This thingy here is mostly me thinking aloud (but not really aloud, now) about the nature of poetry publication in literary journals, and how the tendency to publish “one-off” poems rather than poems that are part of a bigger project, as well as the tendency to publish single poems rather than multiple poems by a single poet, is acting to undermine both poets and the journals who love them. Sure, this notion has arisen because of the my own publishing experiences; after all, continuing is the utterly disturbing trend of poems I consider “substandard” or “not-aligned-with-my-greater-projects” being published, while poems I believe are of greater substance wallow in unpublished nothingness. And although I take the blame for most of these occurrences, I think the aforementioned way journals go about filling their poetry-dedicated pages is not to be underestimated as a cause of the problem.

As for poems that are part of a larger sequence or project, I think the easiest explanation is that because the poems that comprise larger projects are, in fact, part of something larger, they are therefore prone to being less capable of standing alone. Yet I believe a more complicated explanation is that the themes of “project poems” tend to be more complex, or drawn out, or contextually-oriented to the project’s bigger picture, whereas the “one-off poems” are usually simple little ditties with a bite-size idea. They are pop songs.

But it’s frustrating nonetheless, because poets focused on publishing a book are more inclined to write albums than singles. But literary reviews really love their singles, and this is due in large part to their nasty propensity of publishing “poems” rather than “poets,” which results in a journal dedicating, say, fifty pages to poetry that features 46 lyric poems by 42 different poets. It’d be much better, in my opinion, if journals aimed to publish a poetic vision rather than just a lyric they happen to enjoy—this way a reader can recognize a poet’s identity, rather than getting maybe thirty lines and a significant likelihood of forgetting the poet’s name. It’s like getting a mix tape: yeah, you love the variety, but you probably aren’t going to constantly check the tracklist to see who you’re listening to.

So how about this: fifty pages, ten poets. Yes, that means everyone’s cover letter inevitably looks a lot less impressive, but there are several obvious benefits to be had, both for the journal and for the writer. First of all—and this seems funny to even say—the writer might actually give a damn when the journal arrives in the mail. And not because he or she would get to drool over more pages of his or her own work, but because it would be more interesting to see what other poets in the journal have to offer; you’d actually have the opportunity to develop a relationship with a companion poet’s work over the course of several poems. You’d also be pretty safe to assume that the editors were looking for cohesion in the issue, so it would help you reflect more thoroughly on your own work and its place in that particular issue, and the journal’s aesthetic as a whole.

Secondly, the personal relationship between a journal and a poet would be enhanced, because it takes a substantial commitment on both sides to make fifty pages/ten poets happen. It’s a commitment on the part of the journal not only because they are giving up more pages to each poet, but they also are relinquishing the habit of publishing “singles.” It would require a heightened degree of journalistic confidence in a writer’s vision, which would mean that they would be publishing probably at least a couple of a poet’s poems that they are only “iffy” on; but they would do this because those “iffy” poems are part of the vision, and offer the pros and cons of a bigger picture. It would also make an individual poet more likely to support the journal in the future, because publication would be more of an event and less of a “whatever.” As for the poet, the commitment is huge—to give multiple poems to one journal means that those poems are not going to be published elsewhere. It really is putting a lot of eggs in one basket, but the hope is that that basket will actually garner more exposure, because rather than being one easily-skippable page in three different journals, with two of the poems never being accepted for publication, you have five hard-to-ignore pages in one journal.

Of the more than 180 poetry-publishing journals with which I am familiar, no more than ten truly operate in this “poets-rather-than-poems” manner. The most notable of these is probably The Missouri Review, which has a long-standing history of pushing poets to the next level; after all, if you can say that you were published in The Missouri Review, you are saying that you were a featured poet who can offer not only flashes of lyric brilliance, but a consistent strength and unity of vision. But, to be honest, it is difficult to submit to this journal—they ask for 12-20 pages of poetry, and that’s a hell of a lot to put out there, even if they only take five or six pages. And surely, if every journal worked like this, it would be far more difficult to manage simultaneous submissions, as the clerical end of the deal would get to be very challenging. But ultimately, the relationship between journal and poet would be amplified, and the poet would be given more of an opportunity to become stylistically recognizable—especially to the casual journal reader who only has one or maybe two subscriptions (or, more likely, none), rather than forty; and this chance to have breadth revealed must be better than being just another insignificant name on a long list of one-offs.

15 Comments»

  tier3 wrote @

Estella Ramirez, via MySpace, had this response:

Hmm…as a reader and music listener, I prefer a theme album. I prefer journals where I get to know the poet, too. I got to know A.R. Ammons tiny poems in such a journal. I recently fell in love with one poet’s work on such a journal, and I made a point to write her name down. It’s great! If only I could find that piece of paper…

But I also think that a “single” poem is not necessarily pop, but occasionally, a tiny universe. And even pop has its place in the world (As much as I hate to admit it). I agree that the world would be better served by more of the kinds of journals that publish poets rather than poems. It does, as you say, serve both the poet and the reader of the journals. Does it serve the journals? It serves them in the sense that they are forced to think of bigger pictures and more complex themes, perhaps. If it doesn’t make a big enough difference to them monetarily or otherwise to make them expend the effort, I can’t say. I’d say it’s worth the effort. I’m not as well-read as you. But I’m willing to guess that those who share your and my aesthetic are those who make “vision” journals, rather than pop singles. Do we need more of those? I’m selfish, so, yes!

  drobbins wrote @

Interesting post. I agree with most of what you are saying here; however, I am always weary of poetry as part of “project,” as it can very easily turn to gimmick – which often becomes the dominant aspect of the work, and leaves the reader not really knowing anything about the person they just read. But that’s just me and my tastes – I hate gimmicky stuff, and I hated Natasha Tretheway’s books, and hell, she won the Pulitzer, so it just goes to show you what my opinion is worth in the face of today’s “literary culture.” I suppose I just hate the idea of poetry merely being “pretty” or aesthetic – I like it to be a window into the person, not their cleverness or their wit. So, I guess I’m just saying I agree for the most part, however there definitely needs to be a very fine balance between having “singles” and “albums” – the singles need to be enough to make you want the album, and the album needs to be enough to make you appreciate the singles as individual things. I wholly agree with the idea of submitting a large number of poems – submitting 3-5 pages is so difficult, and always I’d rather submit a large body of work and let them take a chunk of it. Anyway, nice post.

  dhadbawnik wrote @

start your own journal!

it’s my belief that every poet should be doing something to contribute to the conversation of poetry, not just sending work out–although that’s an important part of the puzzle, ultimately it leaves all the publishing power in the hands of these mega-litmags that perpetuate this problem.

That said, there are already a number of lesser-known journals that tend to take fewer poets and more poems. 6×6, DTC — hell, even Midwest something-or-other just took 12 of Steve’s poems. There’s hope out there.

in the long run, i don’t know who reads these big journals and gets a sense of any cohesive editorial strategy at work, let alone a genuine taste of anyone’s work. some of them are all right, but i’ve just received an indiana rev. and it’s crap. as with most things in life, the smaller ones may be lesser known but ultimately run with more passion and vitality—and are often just as tough to get into.

  neuendorf wrote @

I agree with David. Seems like the logical conclusion of your post is to start your own “poems” journal, selecting a few ripe melons to fill your patch. (I’m round, I’m green, juicy even…still available from your corner grocer as well)

Ron Silliman makes similar complaints. (You’ll be happy to know you’re in his company, I’m sure). And I know in a recent post he discussed, at length, a journal that does just what you’re clamoring for. It wasn’t Missouri Review; it was something more avant.

Seems once you win a major award, you can convince journals to give you several pages (Bidart of course filled an entire Poetry with one of his long poems), but until then, most major journals will be weary of giving multiple pages to an untested newbie, understandably so, since even they are running a business.

But, yes, start a journal, call it “Long Johns.”

  treym wrote @

One of the journals Silliman mentioned was, as David already offered, 6×6, but I can’t recall the other avant-zine’s name.

My gripe: there will always be the journal-friendly poets who constantly write “pop songs” and unashamedly fill their own books with “singles,” each with a different shiny magazine mentioned on the acknowledgements page. This is a business, so this is a convenient position for both parties. As a result, the journals in which they’re published feel disjointed, as do the poets’ books. It seems to be the much-too-common sacrifice of integrity for immediacy that prohibits any sense of cohesion for both the books and journals.

START YOUR OWN JOURNAL. Like now.

  tier3 wrote @

First of all, there is no way in hell I’m starting my own journal–that sort of endeavor is best left to the deranged. But really, our collective minds being able to mention only a handful of journals that operate in the poet-rather-than-poem manner demonstrates the dearth of opportunities for publishing longer work amongst the work of others–for every 6×6 or Spectaculum or Missouri Review, there are twenty journals which would unflinchingly stuff an envelope with a rejection letter if a poet dared have the nerve to submit a single seven-page poem. David, this displeasing fact is why I was so excited to give you part II of “Where the Workers Lived”–it would have been practically impossible to place a piece of that length elsewhere. Certainly, the Bidart in Poetry instance is extremely rare, but even on a much smaller scale, such as five sequential lyrics, it shouldn’t be seen as an undue risk by journals to publish a “newbie,” if that newbie wrote excellently. Instead, though, the journals are more often inclined to publish five disparate lyrics by a mixed bag of poets who may or may not establish themselves as actual writers rather than one-hit-wonders. And this leads to the idea, first introduced to me by Charles Wright, that there are “too many people publishing poetry” but not enough “actual poets.”

As far as “project” lending itself to gimmick, I can see the worry here. But any novel is a project, right? It’s a lengthy discussion with a singular vision, and is not necessarily predisposed to gimmickry, regardless of Postmodernity’s noble attempt to make that so. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” surely was a “project,” and in today’s publishing climate, Coleridge would have had a hell of a time getting even its shortest sections into the pages of a leading literary journal. Many journals even go so far as to declare that they have no interest in poems of greater than, say, seventy lines. And I would be willing to bet that it would be a feat to discover in these journals many poems longer than forty lines–such is the common journal discourse, and I have a giant stack of reviews to offer as proof of this phenomenon. The fact that this methodology is their prerogative is beside the point.

Don’t get me wrong–I do see a value in having journals which publish a wide variety of “singles,” because singles can be a view into a tiny universe, or into the person providing the composition…it’s just that journals like this far outnumber those who approach poetry publication differently. Many will feature roughly five fiction writers and thirty poets–does this make the value of a single publication greatly weaker if you’re a poet? My guess is hell yes it does. And it also makes the entirety of the “getting published” process much less exciting, because how are you supposed to get fired up about having one page of 120 in a journal? I think Trey makes a fantastic point in that this way of going about things is a sacrifice of integrity for immediacy, and, unfortunately, we have little choice if we want to reach a wide audience–sure, the smaller literary journals may be run with more passion, and may be just as hard to get into, but in the long run of trying to establish yourself as a poet with staying power, readership still rules the roost, whether we like it or not.

  drobbins wrote @

Your absolutely right as far as Coleridge; and just to clarify, I wasn’t suggesting that any longer work – whether as one unit or several – equates to something gimmicky, just that I’ve seen too many so-called “great” contemporary writers release a rather boring (yet “acclaimed”) book of poems which do nothing for me, yet the poetic-powers-that-be-tenured seem to love just because it’s “imaginative. Bleh – insert the rant on being imaginative from Six Degrees of Separation. While it’s not poetry, I think of something like Joyce’s Dubliners as a great example of a good balance between having individual works that are really fantastic on their own, yet still work towards that “singular vision” you mentioned. But then again, I suppose using Joyce as a standard is setting the bar much too high.

I wholly agree with your comment on “too many people publishing poetry” but not enough “actual poets.” I have a whole slew of theories on why that is the case, but I’ll spare you that rant. As much as have really hated the direction the journal has gone since its old editor left, I have to commend Poetry for this past summer only accepting submissions from people never published in their journal – it seems like a good policy to somewhat curb the star-f*ing that “top tier” literary journals seem to often do. I do agree with you, though, that it would be so much nicer to see 10-15 pages of a poet’s work, rather than 2-3 small poems. But hey, I guess journals only want depth when it includes a 10-20 dollar reading fee, for the “Someguy I. Neverheardof Poetry Prize.” My criticisms of poetry journals aside, I also agree with your complete rejection of the idea of starting your own journal. This just seems like specious reasoning that doesn’t really address the issue at hand, if not make it worse. One of my best friends and I have a standing argument over whether the all-women’s journal she edits for is good or bad for literary culture as a whole; I argue it’s bad for poetry, as more and more journals – especially catering to specific multi-cultural division – dilutes the Ph of standards, if you will, of poetry on a large scale. No longer does someone look at a work and say it is good or bad; instead, they simply find where your “audience” is. The lack of real critical dialogue concerning poetry has led to the very thing you are discussing: journals that have “styles” and publish singular, comfortable and small poems that fit their own expectations. This seems contrary to identifying characteristics of previous literary movements, when journals and publications allowed expectations to be challenged.

Ok, I’m all fired up now, so I’ll shut up. Sorry for blabbing so much, but again, interesting reading.

  dhadbawnik wrote @

Well, “specious reasoning” aside–ahem–I find it interesting that on yr blog, drobbins, the most recent post is one celebrating radiohead’s album (and, presumably, the band’s strategy of releasing it via their own web site instead of through a record company?). The indie music model was one that I was going to cite as an analog to the small press approach. Most musicians I know have been doing it this way for a long time. You make a CD, pay to have it pressed, do some gigs and sell it there as well as through a web site. If people like it, they buy it–cultural capitalism at its finest. Later, if you’re lucky, you move up through the label chain, although even that means a smaller and smaller cut of the pie and is becoming less and less necessary as more musicians choose to cut out the middle man.

From a creative/aesthetic standpoint, that’s all I’m arguing. No doubt the landscape is clogged with too much crappy poetry, and journals, as a s-press publisher i know once said, are “dead on arrival.” does that mean we should throw up our hands and wait for *poetry* (and basically everyone else) to change their editorial approach? part of the beauty of poetry (not the magazine) is that even as it’s increasingly marginalized–a process that’s been going on for more than 50 years in america–new poets and new movements and, yes, new journals and presses come along to revitalize things. many are crap, but some of them have been incredibly important and influential. i guess i’m willing to live with some crap for the sake of the great ones. but it’s more than that–

all of my poetic heroes from the older generation have been involved with starting such journals and presses (and reading series and venues and so on). almost all of the poets of my own generation that i admire have been involved in them as well. partly it has to do with not waiting for the biggies to deign to notice them, and partly it’s a form of critical dialogue in itself–whether you agree with that critical stance or not is a decision you can make at the point of purchase, just as in the case of musicians etc. –and partly it has to do, as i implied above, with giving something back to poetry, creating community, etc.

and frankly, i’m puzzled by your reasoning for why getting involved with editing/publishing is “bad for poetry.” i don’t want this to escalate into a flame war, and i mean no offense, but to the extent that i can see the reasoning for this idea in your post, it implies a sort of uber-aesthetic we all ought to share that makes me very uneasy to say the least.

  drobbins wrote @

Who’s scruffy looking?! Seriously, no flame taken, or returned; I suppose I should qualify myself and say that I didn’t necessarily mean to unilaterally claim getting involved with publishing was a bad thing for the literary culture. I suppose what I was trying to get at was that currently, there comes these ebbs and flows of self-started journals, and very quickly it can seem like we are swiming in them, with few of them actually having impact. This is on top of Web based journals, who are still rising and falling in the hierarchy of things. Ultimately, it would be so much better, IMO, if instead of fifty small self published journals entering the fray, those among them had a place to exchange critical dialogue about poetry, and could recognize a common ground in their aesthetics (or rejection of aesthetics) and instead create one, solid and at-least recognized journal. I always think of the Beat movement in this regard; despite what one thinks about their work itself, they acted as a group, part of a single rejection against the status quo of literature, even if they had aesthetic disagreements among themselves. I admire and respect those that have the tenacity to stick it out and keep self-published journals afloat, but I just don’t have that fight in me. Maybe I’ll rant about this more soon on my own blog … anyway, interesting discussion here at the least.

  tier3 wrote @

Some fine thoughts (and rages) presented here, and the obvious passion to be seen is something you’d think, on a grassroots level, would be well-suited for changing the dominant discourse. As such, I’m inclined to refrain from speaking out against small-time literary journals because they do often represent a cutting edge that established journals (who have a reputation—often well-earned, we must remember—to protect) are often hesitant to embrace. The idea of a “unified front” among smaller endeavors is indeed intriguing, and would certainly enhance the ability of the underground to discover recognition, and therefore, legitimacy; I also think, though, that there is a need for DIY journals striving to stay afloat through only their own resources, and who are thus not so greatly subject to the watering-down and marginalization that comes hand-in-hand with widespread acceptance.

But I think an elephant-in-the-room underlying issue is that all journals, regardless of renown or quality or distribution, are subject to David’s aforementioned DOA status. I think that’s perhaps the gravest, though largely unaddressed, problem of the literary journal scene, and something that transcends the whole argument about whether small journals (or niche journals) are worthwhile or whether big journals are diluted or publishing too many singles or whatever—regardless of all that stuff, no one reads the journals, period. Hardly anyone buys them, and pretty much no one reads them even halfway, including the contributors themselves. Why is this? There are eighty million reasons, ranging from the literature’s oft-questionable quality to the magnificent amount of other reading options available in an internet world. And this should be a concern both for the small journal and for the large, yet it seems like most publishers are content to produce the journal and distribute it, with no concern as to what happens once it’s in the buyer’s hands.

As far as books of poetry are concerned, I wouldn’t say that aiming for Dubliners’ cohesion is setting the bar too high—if anything, that degree of cohesion should always be the goal, and, as Dubliners is not absolutely linked or linear or whatnot, it’s a bar which actually may be better-recognized as the should-be basement of a collection’s unity. And I mean that with no disrespect, obviously. And I’ll also say that—hearkening back to Trey’s comment—this whole issue contributes to the preponderance of poetry books out there which aren’t “books” in any unified sense, so much as they are just “a bunch of poems put between two covers.” And this probably lends itself—along with all sorts of language and style issues that haven’t even come up here—to the widespread disease afflicting so many acclaimed collections of poetry that fail to satisfy.

For journals and books and poets/poetry in general, though, I must admit that I have a pretty firm opposition to comparing them to the indie music scene—I’m pretty entrenched in studying the release method/ways-to-get-yo’self-famous in both worlds, and I can say that music is a case all its own: it comes with far more venues for distribution and presentation, as MySpace and file-sharing has revolutionized the way music initially gets to the masses, and concert halls always seem to outnumber poetry readings. That leads to musicians, inherently, carousing with a much, much larger audience than poets, thus leading to an incomparably rapid word-of-mouth factor. As an example, even “minor” bands (far less renowned than Radiohead, who can only by ridiculous definitions be considered “indie,” their temporary shirking of record labels aside) such as Pram and Beach House—bands with very limited fan bases—sold far more copies of their most recent records than even the most well-known poets. And this demonstrates that, as usual, “fame” in poetry does not equal fame.

But, by all means, ramble on.

  dhadbawnik wrote @

a last brief rant and then i’m done.

i disagree about music being such a radically different model–i know lots of musicians and lots of poets / sp publishers, and worn out many a barstool talking with them about production and distribution etc.

aside from the strange phenomenon whereby a regularly gigging musician can be quasi-famous in his hometown, but completely anonymous outside of it, whereas a poet can be totally unknown in his neighborhood, but draw large crowds in distant cities, i don’t see much difference at all. there are presses right here in town, run by a single person out of a tiny house, selling hundreds, in some cases 1000+ copies of handmade chaps and other product. i don’t disagree that music is far more of a mass medium, but the internet has opened things up for everyone. the communities and economies that we’re talking about exist, but they are under the radar and very dispersed geographically.

as for the beats, i don’t think they were nearly as unified as we tend to think they were–and to the extent that they were, it was largely a white boys’ club, not the most attractive model for today’s gender- and ethno-conscious poet. yet even so, they wouldn’t have had anywhere to publish their work if it wasn’t for individually run presses that many of them were involved with, like floating bear, origin, city lights.

finally, the DOA status of mags is a two-edged sword; on the one hand it totally sucks, on the other it means that i have as good a chance at putting out a worthwhile issue as Great Western Quarterly (or whoever). in the 2002 BAP, selected by creeley, there are as many or more poems that appeared in “little” mags like skanky possum, hambone, can we have our ball back (!!) etc. as in biggies like poetry, beloit, this-or-that review–so they were getting into his hands somehow, and they were good.

  aneuendorf wrote @

I think I have decided the publishing model that will work best for me: write thousands of bizzare poems and some kind of insane 30,000 page novel, none of which anyone will see while I’m alive. I will leave them in a box, carefully organized and annotated, then I will die, probably after spending a few years in a nut house. Then, floating in some nether-sphere, I will watch my fame grow. This will allow me to focus on writing while I’m alive, and let some obsessive niche-loving editor worry about promoting me once I’m dead. It’s flawless.

  tier3 wrote @

Lisa M. Hase, via MySpace, had this response:

Thanks for your thorough discussion of poetry publication. I’ve been thinking a lot about the benefits of publishing multiple poems by the same author in an anthology and hadn’t even really questioned or considered the current practice of most journals who publish single poems or, if accepting multiple poems, placing them separately.

Sure, authors create poems that are meant to stand solely alone; poems that are in essence an artifact of the author’s life and experience. But too there are many, many poets and poems that, while they can stand on their own, are better appreciated and understood in context of the author’s other poems, even if the poems are not inherently connected (arguably, poems by the same author would be inherently connected, though maybe not consciously or deliberately).

A couple of well known collections that immediately come to my mind are “Spoon River Anthologies” by Edgar Lee Masters, and “The Wild Iris” by Louise Gluck.

Many of the poets in my own circle are working on books of poems that not only contain what is referred to as a “theme,” but are intimately connected. Together, the poems collected will create a Gestalt whole; a sense of time and a dimensional look at what the creation. Separately, while still good poems in their respective right, their dimensionality is at best overlooked.

  cannotexist wrote @

CANNOT EXIST’s first issue is on this model (50 pages, eight poets), and will probably stick with that (maybe going as high as ten or eleven contributors, if it seems necessary). Contributors to #1 have already thanked me for it, opining that people are much more likely to read the whole thing. That’s certainly been my experience with magazines, which I rarely finish.

Thanks for the post, in any case. Since I’ve been writing in series for the last few years, publishing has been a bit obnoxious; when someone takes two or three tiny sections of a six-page subseries, I usually end up embarassed by how atrophied they seem out of context, and wish I hadn’t sent them at all…

  Richard Smyth wrote @

You make some interesting points here and made me reflect on my own editorial practice (see my new poetry journal blog for more on this). I think that if I found a poet that I liked enough, I would publish as many as I could fit… but I so often find it difficult to find more than one or two that I like enough to publish. I might just be very very picky, but so be it… In one issue of Albatross, the journal I publish, I published four by a single author and liked her style so much I invited her to submit a manuscript. I ended up publishing a chapbook of her work, I liked it so much. This was very unusual for me, though. I usually have trouble finding more than one that I like.

I do have repeat poets (e.g. Simon Perchik, E.G. Burrows, John Grey) who have tuned in to my editorial taste and send poems that I accept every couple of issues or so. But they always send 3-5, and I always just pick one (when I do!), because only one appeals to me.

I agree with a previous commenter who invites you to do your own journal: that’s one way to solve the problem and fill the gap! I was a featured poet in a book of three poets published by a friend of mine. It was nice to have 50 pages or so to give a home to a long sequence of poems that needed to be all together for it to make sense. Another journal, Color Wheel out of New Hampshire, also published a 20 poem sequence of mine. So it does happen… it’s just not common.


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