The Trials and Triumphs of Editing

Greetings from the Poetry department!

We’re coming to the end of what quickly became our largest submission cycle ever. To those of you still waiting for a response, I promise we are working as hard as we can. I cannot begin to describe how arduous a task this has been.

It would be a lot easier if most of the submissions sucked. Unfortunately, you folks are pretty damn good poets. That means we, your humble poetry editors, have to go through multiple selection cycles, painfully eliminating poems we would sometimes just as soon publish.

At this point, the poetry department is very quiet. Our most excellent Associate Editors have moved on, and a new set of freshmen await your submissions (October 1 that is — please don’t send before then!).   Our new poetry editor, Lisa McCool-Grime, has been featured (and interviewed) on this very site!

emily_dickinson_daguerreotype1

Nice bio pic. Too bad she didn't submit.

The editors of Splinter were surveyed by an all-female submission group about editing practices and submission Dos and Don’ts; the group was established after Vida published this study of the major literary magazines. And what better way to get work done than to recycle text! So here, for your perusal, is a little bit of my editing brain…

KISS – Keep It Simple, Submitter

A submission is basically an introduction, a handshake, and a sales pitch. It should be short and courteous. A brief bio is helpful, but to be honest, after the third publication mention, you kind of start to gloss them over. Pick a couple of publications and if necessary add “and [many] others”. Don’t stress this part; we’re not abundantly concerned with prior publications.

Always, always, always read the submission guidelines wherever you submit! If you violate them, don’t be surprised to find a rejection. And be sure to be familiar with the journal you are submitting to. If you send your “dark cafe in the city” poem to Nature Lover’s Quarterly, you’re wasting their time and yours.

As an online journal, we have certain formatting limitations. Longer poems in particular are very difficult for us to publish. We love surprising language and imagery packaged nice & tight. Make every word count.

What is Poetry?

Ah, the subject of a 3-volume academic magnum opus. Alas, those formatting limitations. And my attention span.

For the purposes of this blog, I can tell you that my definition is quite a bit more restrictive than “phrases and line breaks” but only slightly more restrictive than W.H. Auden’s definition, “memorable speech”.

Take Finnegan’s Wake (please!). It may well be a great novel, but as a poem it does not succeed. This is not to be taken as a slight on Joyce. If he had put line breaks in his book and called it poetry, then I would take issue.

Miss Lowell says: Image is everything!

"Miss Lowell" says: Image is everything!

In as many volumes of academic writing on poetry, poetic technique, and so on that I’ve read, I have yet to find a definition repeated. Everyone has their own categories and classification systems. So once again, this is just one editor’s opinion, but I would say a really good poem demonstrates at least a couple of these craft techniques:

  • Image. The Imagist school overshadow the 20th century and beyond. Learn what makes an image unforgettable. Without exaggeration, at least 75% of the effort is not on the page but in the mind. When you find the image that conveys the sense, the poem is nearly done. All that remains is to write what you see.
  • Metaphor. Comparisons allow someone who has not lived your life to understand an experience in terms of something familiar. What may seem like a powerful emotion to the author will often fall flat for the reader because it just does not resonate. The particulars may be unique, but the universal elements of the experience are what draw the reader along.
  • Diction/Rhetoric. I’ve seen these notions appear together and separately. They’re not quite the same but I’ll bundle them here, since they both connote an element of style. Diction is concerned with the mode of speech in the poem. Is the language terse and gritty? Rich and decadent? You can say “dirt”, “soil”, even “humus”. Just make sure you know why you choose the one you do!  Rhetoric is about what you really mean to convey. Are you making an argument? Telling a story? Do you want to use hyperbole? Understatement? Blood and guts makes a bold statement, but the quiet moment of pain or insight can be more even more powerful — and even shocking — when used well.
  • Narrative. Not all poems tell a story. Some do, yet even the most abstract poem can use narrative elements to great effect. Narrative isn’t just about telling a story. It can put the reader in a mindset to accept an image or metaphor that otherwise might be inaccessible. Narrative is deeply rooted in the human experience. It can drive imagery and induce emotion. The earliest poetry was narrative — ceremonial stories that helped to define society before the written word.

There’s not much more to say. That’s all of poetry in a nutshell — now, go and read it. “Reading is writing,” Splinter contributor  Lisa Cheby observed recently. She learned it from her mentor, Douglas Kearney. It’s worth passing on. The best way to learn about great writing is to read great writing. You can start with The Splinter Generation!

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