Being back early from our hols due to N spraining his ankle, I found I had a day ‘in hand’ and was strangely at a loss. Until I remembered I’d been waiting for such an opportunity (ie an unallocated day) to sit down and open the ‘poetry’ folder on my computer.
I find it hard to get into writing poetry after a break, until I’ve done all the preliminary activity – checking what I’ve got still out, what’s in the ‘almost ready-needs work’ pile, a quick flick through the ‘rejecteds’ to see if I’m moved to re-work any of them. Then there’s the catching up with all the blogs I’ve not read in a while. I might check on what submission deadlines are coming up, and decide whether to go for them. It feels a bit like circling in a plane before landing – checking the terrain, the wind speed, the ‘big picture’, waiting for the best moment to touchdown.
One blog post that really got me thinking was this from the ever-excellent Jeffrey Levine: On reading and reading fees – how things happen round here. Jeffrey is the Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press, currently accepting pamphlet and full-length collection submissions, and this blog post addresses the issue of why they charge reading fees. Apparently some poets have questioned why a reading fee is charged every time a manuscript is submitted, even though it may be the exact same manuscript as previously sent. Personally I have no issue with this – I think if one expects one’s manuscript to be read and considered then it’s right to pay for the reader’s time, expertise and thoughtfulness. If you send the same manuscript again, you can’t expect it to either be read by the same person (necessarily), or even if it is, for that person to remember it from before.
But the article covers much more than that – Jeffrey goes into a lot of detail about how he reads and responds to manuscripts, and it’s fascinating. Apparently it’s not uncommon for poets to submit the same manuscript again and again – ‘virtually everything we’ve ever published has been submitted to us several times over, even by those you might think of as Tupelo’s “big names.”’ One of the reasons I created my own pamphlet was because I was convinced that submitting the same pamphlet (more or less) to the same publishers again and again (and having it rejected) was a useless exercise, and that if a reader came to recognise the same set of poems it would just reinforce a sense of that poet having nothing fresh to offer.
I guess this just shows how much I have to learn. As Jeffrey says: “Sometimes big revisions make a big difference. Sometimes small revisions make a big difference. Sometimes a fresh reading makes a big difference. Often, even subtle changes in the order of the poems makes a huge difference. And sometimes, between one submission period and the next, a poet has an epiphany about how to make his/her poems or manuscript work—something snaps into place and s/he just gets it…..Moreover, I am not the same reader every time I read a manuscript. My tastes evolve. My reactions aren’t predictable. Being human, my attention span varies. Being human, what makes me want to turn the pages one day may not work for me the next day.”
It got me thinking about my attitude to individual poems. Last year I did a rough stock-take of how many times I’d send out a poem before putting it away in the bottom drawer. It doesn’t show a lot of persistence. I tend to only persist with those I think have something. And yet I know full well that my own appraisal of a poem has no bearing whatsoever on whether it meets the approval of an editor or competition judge. It always puzzles me when editors say on their websites ‘send us your very best work’ – would a poet really send something out if they didn’t think it was good? But then again – and perhaps more to the point – what difference does it make if the poet doesn’t think it’s good?
I’ve stalled a bit this year, in terms of getting poems published, but that’s mostly down to my own lack of temerity (I think) – I just haven’t been sending enough stuff out, because I haven’t been writing much new material, and I’ve lost faith in all the ‘rejecteds’, when what I probably should be doing is looking hard at the rejected poems. Maybe there are some I can improve. Or maybe I just need to try sending them to different publications. Or both. One thing I have been doing this year, even if not writing, is reading. I’ve subscribed to some different magazines to see what’s out there, I’ve enjoyed a lot of readings and acquired a variety of new pamphlets and collections along the way. But I need to make sure that being inspired by or admiring of others’ work doesn’t stop me from sending out. I think this may be what has happened – I’ve just lost a bit of confidence and momentum. But I think I’m in the mood now to tackle that.
N’s ankle is fine, by the way – two days ago he was hobbling into the hospital and now he’s playing the organ and desperate to take off the strapping. That’s confidence for you!