Tier 3

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

The Nature of Publication: The Morals of Submission

Note: Many of you have read my post “The Nature of Publication: Poetry in Literary Journals,” but I wanted to change gears a bit here and offer some thoughts on the act of submission itself, and whether it’s really the “right” thing to do.

A chronic moral issue I’ve debated regularly since my early days in an MFA program is whether it inherently compromises artistic integrity to proffer yourself at the feet of literary journals. There’s no doubt that to engage in the act of submission is to engage in not only a certain tedium—research a journal, develop and specialize your cover letter, conscientiously select poems that may be of interest to that journal, print those poems, label and stamp envelopes, fold SASE, fold poems and cover letter, insert in envelope, et cetera, et cetera—but also to contend with the troubling notion that the legitimacy or profitability of your blood, sweat, and tears is somehow contingent on the acceptance of others. While an argument can be made that it is just fine and dandy, as well as wise, to seek the adoration of the literary community, I haven’t been able to shake the nagging feeling that a steroided Salingerian or Dickinsonesque policy of non-sharing would ultimately result in a heightened karmic reward. But has this nagging feeling led me to discontinue the religious act of submitting? Of course not.

As someone who’s worked for literary journals, and has worked to get into them, I respect the symbiotic relationship between the two; still, I have to laugh at myself when people ask how my poems get into journals, as I always slip and use some form of the word “submit.” After all, to many people “submission” implies a sort of prostration, and it’s at least a little embarrassing to embrace that branding of the journal/writer relationship. The justification for that relationship arrangement is plain-as-day: the literary journal is a respected medium for the advancement of a writer’s career, not to mention ego, while the journal has the benefit of the needy multitudes on its side, even if those multitudes don’t often enough fill out a subscription card. All these matters of definition and clarification aside, a particular struggle arrives for the writer who so disdains the notion of self-promotion that it keeps her up at night, only she knows that in regards to eventual tenure (especially without a doctoral degree), the path of least resistance is to get as published as possible, and to do so as quickly as possible.

Writing, unfortunately, is a bear which wears on its foot the steel trap of narcissism. It seems there is little way around this, regardless of whether you claim to write for the good of yourself, for the good of the world, or for any other purpose—after all, the solitary exercise of writing is a workout, and its results are only to the untrained eye less visible than time spent in the gym. Too often the humanity of composition is forgotten, as when the act of writing or of being a writer is seen as some sort of angelic feat, and not the product of diligently sitting still.

Personally, I write because I love writing, and I can’t imagine not writing. But beyond the act of creation, how have I gotten around that little, unpleasant feeling in my gut when I submit to literary journals, that feeling that I’m in some way doing something wrong or selfish or less admirable than waiting until death for heaps of my compositions to be “discovered”? After struggling with this question for years, and suffering the occasional bout of compromise, I think I’ve come to at least a partial conclusion: firstly, to compose a poem or story with the intention of getting it into a journal is an ugly endeavor, and should be avoided—in other words, I’d offer that as long as the “submission” occurs after creation, and not before, it’s all good. Secondly—and perhaps just as importantly—it’s a good habit never, ever to submit to a journal you don’t read, respect, appreciate, and would be truly honored to have accept your work.

What do you think? Does submission take the pure joy out of your creation?  Is it foolish to write and expect appreciation without submitting to journals?  Is there any way to avoid narcissism when engaging in a creative act?  And, here’s a big one: is posthumous glory more worthwhile than earthly recognition?

9 Comments»

  tier3 wrote @

comment via Facebook from Ditch Poetry:

Music is created to be heard, visual art is created to be seen, plays are created to be performed, literature is created to be read.
Art without an audience is nothing at all.
Presenting the work to an audience is part of the creative process.
Houses are built to live in. Would you build a house and leave it empty? No. So why write something if it is not meant to be shared with an audience?
Submitting for publication is not simply ego stoking. Any artist risks jeers as much as cheers. Anyone who was acting purely on ego wouldn’t risk the jeers, therefore, the act of submitting is not egotistical, but courageous.
It is part of the fulfilment of the work. The interaction with the audience is the necessary completion of the creative process – or it isn’t art.

  tier3 wrote @

Much of what you say I find to be agreeable, but for the creator to find his or her work “worthy” of that audience…isn’t it possible that this act can feel less like the purposeful and necessary extension of the artist’s work, and more like the sticky world of self-promotion? That is my concern, and though I’d be more than happy to consider the act of submitting “courageous,” I’m not sure that adjective quite fits—the result of a submission is most always either a semi-anonymous rejection letter or the reward of publication. Seems like a pretty safe bet to me.

You do, though, propose a couple fascinating questions:
1. Is literature, music, visual art, etc. the same as building a house? Is their utility of equal validity?
2. Re: the last sentence of the comment—is interaction with the audience necessary for the creative process to be consummated as art? Is the poem or story or painting or song that never sees the light of day any less valid as art than the widely distributed?

  estellie wrote @

“Is literature, music, visual art, etc. the same as building a house? Is their utility of equal validity?”

Sure, all these things are valid. Is it a valid effort to create? I should say so. Are such creations as valid a commodity as, say, a house? I should certainly say so. And naturally, music, literature, and all the arts are useful and necessary to the body, mind, and spirit. No less so than a house. In fact, we find so many times that a person can live without a house, but cannot live without art. On the other hand, building a house, I’m sure many architects and builders would argue, is artistic as well as useful. But, is a suburban home a valid exhibition for an art museum? Is art found in the grocery store “real” art? Won’t these questions make for hours of discussion?

I agree with Ditch Poetry about art manifesting when it is viewed. Once, when I was feeling insecure about my own writing, being told it wasn’t urgent enough, and feeling that perhaps I shouldn’t bother to plague the world with more mediocre writing, a non-MFA friend reminded me that the only fulfilment my writing required was that it bring me joy. If that was true, then why stop? So, yes, writing is meant to be enjoyed by it’s readership, or more significantly, to move and change its readership, however small that readership may be. As for sharing, and I prefer thinking of it as “sharing” rather than “submitting,” for me, it is fine to do if my aim is to share, even if it is to get attention and reward. Yes, it can indeed be ego-stroking self-promotion. This is one part of art, but it is not its fulfilment. In face, the greatest danger of sending off work for the acceptance/rejection of a third party is to seek in this third party my own validity as a writer. That’s why for so many years, I have put off the arduous process of sending off my work, because at this moment, it would feel too much like “submission.”

  neuendorf wrote @

‘Tis tree falling territory, the territory being woods, and you, nor I, not being there, as the trapclap mind slap goes. It goes. And goes.

I find the house comparison to be a rickety shack, almost a crack house of an analogy. You can eat a poem for the paper, pass it like a loose leaf stool, but that’s about it. But, no real shock it was constructed, said metaphor, since everyhing in America must be a product, or the enevitable charge of selflishness flies fast. Share it with me, share it with me baby or you are just a commie hermit. Or a Hopping Kermit.

Dickinson tried and failed to publish her poems on a few different occasions, and the manner in which she left her manuscripts (tied neatly in bundles, clearly written) suggests she wanted them to be found and published at some point. Still, few saw them during her life, and they are none the worse for it.

A better analogy is Han Shan, Chinese recluse, Zen weirdo, who wrote his poems on rocks up on Cold Mountain, living in isolation, though in proximity to a monastery. They were rock-published, though not chiseled in stone.

I think an audience can spoil a poet just as easily as it make one.

  Estella wrote @

Well, if it is miraculous, self-made or mysteriously appearing art, then yes, it can be the stuff of trees falling in forests. Otherwise, we can’t even ask the question (is it still art if it is not viewed?) b/c the poetry will be viewed by it’s creator first. Even Han Shan’s poems. Unless of course we begin to consider art that is not made, but just is.

I think of found art, too; many argue that’s not art – I haven’t reached a verdict) but it brings an interesting perspective when thinking about whether art must be seen to be art. In this case, the art can be argued to be in the seeing/finding; then we are in that forest; if it is not found, then well, it’s just stuff? The art is not the object in this case (and yet it sells, because well, yeah, America is profit-driven).

  treym wrote @

It certainly is important to refrain from composing under the spell of lit-mag-reward. Sure, it may (or may not) land one a few more pubs, but the art itself will be the victim. To me, this is no different from aligning oneself to a literary “camp” and aiming to write within that aesthetic: the art is not creating anything truly new, only revising what has been done. (True, all art/writing may do this to some extent, but only a small percentage really breaks ground.)

However, having this enticing spell of acceptance in mind when writing is only differentiated by a very gray line from considering audience, however slight that voice in one’s head may be.

Along these lines, it is hard to truly believe that one writes purely for oneself, because unless the writing is a journal entry, somewhere (hidden?) in the writer’s mind is the fact that with producing a piece of art comes the potential threat of it being read/viewed/heard, in this lifetime or not, via submission or excavation.

So to me, submission seems a necessary evil, not necessarily a narcissistic one, but with this act comes the importance of valuing the art itself over the comfort of acceptance, which can be a scary, lonely position.

  tier3 wrote @

comment via Facebook from Kevin Sanchez:

kind of starting from the conundrum of that old groucho marxism, ‘i refuse to join any club that would have me as a member’, perhaps you should only submit to those literary journals which share your worries about artistic integrity – or start your own (and change the name of the process: instead of ‘submitting’, how about ‘gifting’?).

my (seldom-followed) advice, borrowed from poets of a different color, is: ‘get your cake’, e.g., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHjwd1C1FzM.

  tier3 wrote @

comment via Facebook from Paula Hanna-Mendoza of RIOT Ink:

Dug the article. Interesting… one the one hand I’ve friends who tell me to send, send, send–amass those rejections slips and get your work out there. Then there are those who tell it different… I’ve a friend who spends most his time and energy crafting and completing manuscripts for mostly chapbook sized (15-20 poems) books, and doesn’t send anything out unless it’s asked for. Thing is–some people don’t have the luxury of knowing enough people (or having enough people know their work) to where that work is mostly solicited. (Love the words we use: submit, solicit, accept).

As someone who regularly reads and subscribes (to a few) literary journals, I lean towards thinking that it can only help a poet to be read. We write to be read. A magazine really only endeavours to assert a certain aesthetic, to assemble a chorus. The practical tediousness that goes into submitting to (and reading, selecting, & putting together) a magazine is necessary, (but, I’d like to think) _always_ rewarding.

  dhadbawnik wrote @

if you are interested in a “career” as a poet, then, as with a career in, say, selling lawn care equipment or working as a mascot for a professional sports team, it’s important to get your name out there early and often. that means sending out mucho mas, winning a contest here and there, and basically pursuing the kind of official recognition that goes along with all that. there’s nothing wrong with that, and nothing to be ashamed of if that’s what you want. just be honest with yourself and with others.

on the other hand, i agree with andrew — too many great poets either never pursued or were denied recognition during their lifetimes. the first poster’s statement, that art without an audience is not art, is provocative but wrong. and “audience” is a term one has to define for oneself, anyway. why let poetry magazine define it for you? lew welch considered a poem to be “published” when he read it out loud in front of people. to “make public” — that’s the bare-bones definition of the word.

what seems to work for me is a combination of approaches. i do send stuff out, but i’m more and more selective about where i send it; i don’t bother with mags that, as nick says, i don’t have respect for and wouldn’t pick up. i also have a number of friends doing small press stuff and things tend to get out that way. and i try to read in front of my peers as often as i can. i have some faith, but i don’t have faith that someone’s going to stumble onto my poems in an attic and proclaim me the next whitman. so i try to help them out.


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