A Swipe of the Net
— Caroline Mercurio
Quick Note about this issue: This Editor’s Issue of The Café Review is different from our normal published reviews. We have asked 14 editors of poetry journals from across the United States two complex question: Why do some poems stand out from others? And what is he state of poetry in America today? Their answers will surprise you. We hope this issue will give poets a better sense of what editors look for in poems. You will get the inside scoop about why different journals accept different types of poems. For teachers, this issue will answer questions students have about the dos and don’ts in submitting poems as well as the perennial question of why poetry matter.
Hunger Mountain, an arts journal published by the Vermont College of Fine Arts, has guest editors for each issue. This arrangement continually gives readers a fresh perspective and encourages collaboration and diversity among the editors. Although we receive about 2,000 submissions per year, we only accept and publish less than 3 percent of the work we receive. Hence this advice: Don’t take rejections personally. It’s a proven tactic: Send out your best work, and keep at it.
In the poems we accept, I look for skill, heart and soul, and originality. Many poems succeed at the skill level, which is identifiable by, among other things, technique, form, and vocabulary, but they fail at having heart and soul, which is fairly unidentifiable but instantly recognizable. Rather than attempt to define it, it is easier to simply say that when this quality is present, I feel it in my heart and soul.
Over the years, I’ve noticed similar themes that poets must identify as ones that speak to the heart and soul, such as childbirth, loss of a child or parent, infidelity, car wrecks, bird and ocean metaphors, and, of course, poems about writing poetry. Originality is what makes a poem truly stand out, even if it is carrying a frequent theme. If the poem presents its subject with careful attention, passion, and a new perspective — regardless of what it is about — it will likely be passed on for further consideration.
The following poem by Dellana Diovisalvo exemplifies what a poem needs to jump out of the slush pile and into the “yeses.”
The History of Hair
When I was a kid I wanted
hair like Crystal Gayle’s, shining
dark and expansive
as the sea at midnight. My mother
presented the challenges: How
to wash it all? How long
would it take to dry?
In amazement I wondered: Would
hair like that get tangled
around my legs in sleep
like slippery satin sheets? As a
Jersey teen growing up in the 80s,
hair was all about height.
The cool girls had bangs curled
straight up and stiff, like a tsunami
frozen above their foreheads. In my early
twenties I was too busy partying and too broke
for haircuts. My hair grew quick, thick, and
anti–chameleon–like. Black, purple, white,
always something to set me apart from my
surroundings. At twenty–five I became
enchanted with Zen Buddhism and all
of that talk about letting go and detachment
convinced me to shave my head. My friend
and I filled an envelope with orphaned strands
and sent it to Locks for Love. I didn’t cry but
there was no wave of instant relief.
Disappointed, on my way to the train, I pulled
an apple from my backpack. It was
a windy day and I didn’t realize until
the third or fourth bite that I was eating outside,
in the wind, without getting my hair
tangled in my teeth. I smiled and enjoyed
the simple, crisp pleasure.
The opener grabs my attention. The originality of the images and the tight lines keep me reading. I’m left standing in that crisp wind enjoying the mouth–watering taste of an apple, and I’m amused because I can identify with the familiar theme: how hair defines our image despite its uselessness. (I’ve read dozens of balding poems based on this same idea.) Diovisalvo has effectively moved me, heart and soul.
Once, on a listserve, I read a sarcastically written list of 10 ways to impress an editor at a literary journal. A few of the things mentioned were similar to guidelines I provide for my freshman writing students — including necessary reminders about formatting and proofreading — except one of the listserve items read something like, “Use as many fancy fonts and colors as possible, copyright every page, and give the editor design tips for their magazine!”
While this is obviously tongue–in–cheek advice, I’ve gotten some pretty odd submissions over the years, and any editor will have stories to tell about strange mail. But if you’ve sent quality work, avoided purple ink, and followed submission guidelines, why, you may ask yourself, are you still getting rejection letters? As I said in a 2005 Editor’s Note to our readers: “What we wind up with in each issue is intuitive, a swipe of the net. . . . Themes emerge of their own volition. One thing you can always be assured of is a compelling variety of work.”
Afterward, I received a letter from a gentleman who claimed that a “swipe of the net” was not specific enough; he wanted to know what our criteria for publishable work were, a definition of our mission in terms of exactly what we would and would not print. He was trying to fill a mold by writing the poem to fit the “assignment.” My advice here is simple: work hard to write well and then have confidence in your work. Proofread carefully. Let the work own the page for itself, not because it wants to see print.
Although some find this a controversial stance, publishing poetry is as much about numbers, chance, and networking as it is about quality. The state of modern poetry in America is undergoing a technological revolution. Writers no longer have the luxury of working in solitude. Getting involved has become easier than ever: online creative writing and social networking sites are booming, and blogs are the genius solution to the human need for uncensored expression. Yet, people worry that the quality of poetry has been diluted by the quantity of it now readily available.
Some would call this bastardization of the exclusivity of publishing poetry, but “the end result,” as Texas poet Jack Myers says in his introduction to New American Poets of the ’90s, “[is] bringing more new poetry to the attention of more people than ever before and [that] has made it easier to find and gauge the pulse of the art.” The multitude of communication options available to us as writers and readers exemplifies the necessity of collaboration, innovation, and diversity.
But does this mean that poetry in print is dying out? Forgive my optimism: print literary journals will never be obsolete. In an article entitled Lines Online: Poetry Journals on the Web, Lisa Russ Spaar writes, “Most editors and writers seem to share a hope that the answer lies not in the disappearance of print and the ascendancy of digital technologies, but in a mutually illuminating
and valuable counterpoint between the two.” I believe there will always be people interested in publishing, printing, and most importantly, sitting down with a good book, apart from the pressures of life, and reading it with gratitude for knowledge, entertainment, and escape.