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or “not-aligned-with-my-greater-projects” being published, while poems I believe are of greater substance wallow in unpublished nothingness.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.