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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?

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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.