What goes on inside poetry editors’ heads? is a burning question for publishing and wannabe-publishing poets everywhere. With this third Ten Questions series, we are showcasing weekly answers from a diverse group of poetry editors to Ten Questions for Poetry Editors. Each editor’s responses will appear as a separate blog post and all posts will be linked back to the series’ standing page.
Our responder this week is Paul Stevens, editor of The Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera and The Flea
1. What drew you to editorial work in the first place?
Nothing. I fell into it. It’s all Maz’s fault! I had never considered for a moment doing editing until M.A. Griffiths — a poet whose work I very much admire — asked me to be one of the guest editors for her email poetry magazine WORM. In a moment of idle thoughtlessness I said yes.
2. Describe your editorial trajectory – when/where did it start, how long have you been at it, where is it now? What are your editorial ambitions?
M.A. Griffiths would regularly have two guest editors per issue, and her practice was to strip submitted texts of names etc then send the bare texts to the editors to score. The system was 0 = No way!, 5 = Maybe, 10 = Yes! Definitely! Each editor would pick a particular favourite from the batch and write a brief comment on it. I was guest editor of WORM in 2005 and very much enjoyed doing it. I had a lifetime of reading, writing and teaching poetry and some very recent participation in online poetry forums (mainly Burgundy, now defunct): but editing WORM made me realise that the selection process was not unlike marking the Higher School Certificate, and was very do-able.
The next step in my Editor’s Progress came during a discussion in an online forum (Gazebo) where someone was asking about getting poems published for the first time, and Stephen Schroeder replied humorously referring to a mythically undesirable “Shit Creek Review” as a possible starting point: “If he’s willing to accept rejection, have him shoot high at first — better than starting out with the Shit Creek Review, where publication is barely better than nothing.” That was it! Being more than slightly silly, I raced over to Blogger.com, started up a Blog called Shit Creek Review, then returned to the forum and humorously offered publication there. Soon after the joke spread to Eratosphere. To my amazement I was flooded with submissions! And many of them were very good indeed. I asked Pat Jones for some art work, and she was splendidly generous. Her work inspired me to lift production values for the magazine: I now envisaged something better than a mere blog-mag. So I registered shitcreekreview.com as a website, and learned how to make a simple website. Nigel Holt joined to help me with the poetry editing. Then I had heart failure (literally) in the middle of all this, was hospitalised, plied with ace-inibiters, beta-blockers, digitalis, Warfarin and the wonderful Lasix, and discharged after a week. Tanked up with these lovely drugs, acutely aware now of my fragile mortality, I returned home to bring the first Shit Creek Review out a week later.
The magazine was very popular. People seemed to like its irreverence (embodied in the title), its kamikaze attitude, and the very high quality of its poets. Now I asked Don Zirilli to join as art editor and webmaster, and we chose a theme for issue 2; SCR has had themed issues ever since. After that I asked Angela France to come on board the Shit Creek canoe as third poetry editor. So that’s the crew of paddlers.
The Chimaera (originally called II) was an offshoot (or subzine) of SCR to start with. I contacted Peter Bloxsom of Netpublish, whose work in setting up Umbrella I very much admired. After working with him for two issues I asked him to become co-editor of The Chimaera, so that magazine is very much a two-man show. The Chimaera is a different concept from Shit Creek Review: more serious, with greater quantity of content, and including prose as well as poetry (though still primarily focused on poetry). The Chimaera quickly evolved a three-part structure: General poetry and prose, a Themed section, and a Spotlight Feature on the work of one poet. Themes we have run include Expatriate poets, Translation, Belonging (an Area of Study for the New South Wales Higher School Cerificate, for which the state’s 60,000 students and their teachers have to find additional texts — this has generated immense exposure of our poets’ work to the Australian education market and beyond), Multum in Parvo (concise writing), Light Verse, and for the forthcoming issue, Well-Wrought Form.
My most recent editorial venture is The Flea, which aims to publish the sort of poetry I like most of all, but for which I felt there are too few venues. If you write free verse about Mom, Dad, suburban affirmation or angst, or dissociated post-modern states of mind, using the simple language of everyday speech, there are any number of venues out there which will publish you. But if you write formal verse (or even free-verse) which expresses wit, learning, abstruse imagery from (say) science or philosophy, polysyllabic diction, and which contemplates abstract concepts, cosmology, platonic love, theology, epistemology, and so forth — the sort of poetry Donne or Marvell might write if they were alive and composing today — if you write such verse, I say, the possibilities of publication are very much more restricted. The Flea is intended to publish such ‘unpopular’ poetry: non-MFA stuff, if you like. Finally Flea-ish verse does not have to be particularly Metaphysical — a difficult term anyway — but simply to please me, the sole editor.
For that is where my editorial career has led me: I very much enjoy paddling with the Shit Creek Crew, or doing the Peter-and-Paul co-editing with Peter Bloxsom, but I wanted one editorial project that was all my own responsibility: where I had the sole say about what gets published — and that’s what The Flea is.
The situation of being sole editor is both exhilarating and scary. It also makes the editorial process much simpler. When there is more than one editor the selection process can become very complicated: as the co-ordinating editor for both SCR and The Chimaera I often find it very hard work to keep track of where we stand in relation to particular submissions or other editorial issues. Hard work but necessary and productive work, which ensures finally that good editorial decisions are made. But this takes up a very great deal of my time. Thousands of emails are generated in the process, and a great many posts at the private editorial forums we have for SCR and The Chimaera. The beauty of The Flea is that I just look at a poem and say ‘Yes I want that’ or ‘No that’s not right for The Flea’ or sometimes ‘Hmmm… Let me think’ and there it is: mission accomplished! Poem picked (or not!)! Easy as!
The amazing Peter Bloxsom makes SCR and The Chimaera viable and attractive electronic publication sites with his Netpublish work. But from my point of view his greatest triumph is The Flea. My brief to him was that I wanted an idiot-proof (the idiot being me, folks!) online magazine with a minimum of graphics and the look of a seventeenth-century broadsheet. I am stunned by what he produced. It is exactly what I want, only much better! And the CityDesk text entry system he fine-tuned for my purposes makes it easy for a total nincompoop like me to put new work up in seconds. This is really the way to go, in my opinion, publication-wise. If you want your own poetry magazine. Peter is Da Man!
The mission of all of these magazines I’ve founded is to publish and promote good poetry. They all had root in the world of online poetry forums, especially the Gazebo, Eratosphere, Poets.org, Sonnet Central and Poets on Fire. Support from these excellent forums got them started, but my ambition now — which I am steadily achieving — is to widen the catchment of contributors way beyond these original bases, thereby widening also the pool of readership, to the benefit of all the poets I publish. These three magazines would simply not exist without the support of those poets, who in many cases could get good money for their poems elsewhere but who nevertheless allow me to publish their work without payment to them, in the spirit of developing poetry generally. Let’s call it service to The Muse. I owe all the poets who have entrusted their work to me a very great debt, of which I am very conscious.
My editorial ambitions — believe it or not — are to reduce my work load. I work teaching high school, but I have a second full-time job in magazine editing. Not to mention family and personal life, but all this editor-ing takes time away from three other projects that I really want to get stuck into: my own writing (very much on the back-burner now), a research MA I want to start one of these years, and my music.
Having said that I have at least three great ideas for new poetry magazines which could be developed… (At this stage Mrs Stevens administers an overdue dose of Mogadon and I calm down again…)
All of my answers in this interview will be complicated by the fact that I edit three very different magazines, each with its own distinct standard operating procedure, editorial personnel, temperament, specific mission, vision, strengths, weaknesses, and challenges.
3. Apart from following submissions guidelines, what should a poet sending work do (or refrain from doing) to stay on your good side?
A few very simple things. Reading the Submission Guidelines is the place to start. I’m constantly amazed, for example, at the large numbers of submissions SCR gets which have nothing at all to do with the current theme. These submissions have no chance because they don’t fit the theme, and it’s clear that the author simply did not read the current submission guidelines. But now they have submitted I have to write and tell them so. Grumble grumble.
Another good thing to do is to NOT double space the lines of your poem in the submission.
Some very professional poets do this next one, and I always bless them for it: when typing poems in Word or another word processor, they end each new line after the first with a line break rather than a paragraph break. In Word and most other programs, use Shift+Enter instead of Enter. This saves me an immense amount of work, because when we’re putting the poems into html I have to manually remove line breaks made with the Enter key and replace them with Shift+Enter line breaks. I have secret cunning ninja ways of achieving this, but it’s still what we technically term A BLOODY LOT OF WORK. So naturally I go all sweet, gooey and full of lurrrve-vibes when I come across a proper Shift+Enter poet.
Poets, if you take nothing else from this interview, please take this: Peter Bloxsom’s submission formatting guidelines for The Chimaera have general application. Go to http://www.the-chimaera.com/Submissions.html and memorise them! They are really good, and poetry editors across the planet will think very kindly of you indeed if you follow them.
Finally, Dearly Beloved: Handling Rejection. Sadly, some poets can’t handle rejection. God knows I get rejected often enough — and quite often that happens when I submit my own poetry for publication! I send off my little masterpieces to some lucky editor, and in the fullness of time they reply that they can’t fit my poetic gems, which they have assiduously studied and brooded over, into their current aesthetic vision; viz. my work is rejected. Do I fall to the floor and sob, plummeting headlong to the Slough of Despond? Well OK, maybe I do; but do I go to the next step and write back to the editor spitting ‘Fuck you!’? — No, Gentle Reader, I do not. But some there are sadly who do that to me. Or worse, they write long complicated defences of their poem arguing why it belongs in the Canon and I in the Loony Bin.
Or worse still, they begin a long internet vendetta against me, with aspersions, denigrations, allegations, death-threats, expletives undeleted and various character-assassinations scattered across the world wide web. Some of these vendicatori can get quite obsessively stalkerish. So please, poetry-submitters, do avoid THAT course of behaviour if poss.
I read hundreds of submitted poems a week and can pick only a tiny few. The odds of having yours picked are not good. My own remedy for rejection of my poetry by dunderhead editors: submit the poems immediately elsewhere. I feel better straight away, like a gambler placing yet another bet that this time might just win: and quite often subs placed that way DO get lucky on the next spin of the wheel. You’ve got to have faith in your own poem rather than vent your angst on the poor editor who was just doing his job. Having said that, some editors ARE total bastards who have absolutely failed to see how utterly brilliant my poetry is! (And as I proof-read these words an email hits my in-folder reading thus: ‘thank you for your submission. we are going to pass this time around. please considr us in the future.’ That’s verbatim, cut-and-pasted from the nasty letter. Sigh. Will editors NEVER learn that I am the Next Big Poet?)
4. Do you co-edit or edit on your own? Talk about this choice – what are the pros and cons of both options, in your view?
The Shit Creek Review uses co-editors and blind scoring WORM-style. The advantages of this are that it focuses as much as possible on the text of the poem, and really does I think bring a degree of fairness and objectivity into the selection process. Downside: it’s a lot of work stripping poems of names etc, putting them into a single batch for the scorers, calculating combined scores, and re-constituting the names of the poets. I quite like the system though I know it has its critics. It can sometimes throw up anomalies: for example, say in a batch of 100 poems five are by Poet A, and the scorers like all five poems and give (say) four of them 10/10. But maybe we don’t really want FOUR poems by the one author in an issue — we want to allow space for a variety of poets. That’s where the editorial debate takes over, and a reasoned decision is made.
With The Chimaera most selections are the result of extensive email to-and-froing between Peter and me. This can be time-consuming, and sometimes complicated. The advantage is that it allows two critical takes on each submission, with a balanced opinion prevailing. But in practice we do both tend to like the same poems, having similar tastes; or at least can see why one editor likes a poem that the other might not find so appealing. We occasionally have guest editors, such as the inimitable John Whitworth for the Light Verse feature in Issue #5, or Stephen Edgar for the Well-Wrought Form issue in the forthcoming issue #6.
The Flea is edited solely by me. I have absolute power. I am Mister Kurtz at the Heart of Darkness. It’s wonderful!
5. What gets you most excited when you read a submission? How frequently do you get “exciting” submissions?
I get very excited when I read a very good poem. Not just a nearly-good poem, but a truly good poem. A poem with all systems functioning. A poem where all forces work together to grab me by the scruff and frog-march me into a real poetic experience. A lot of this is down to good writing, but a lot of it is also down to personal taste. Some technically well-written poems do not move me. Some poems do because it is a happy conjunction of particular poem with particular reader. How often does this happen? Perhaps once or twice a year.
6. Describe how you sort through and narrow down submissions and finally select pieces for publication.
I’ve pretty much described those procedures for SCR. For The Chimaera and The Flea, I read the poems, leave them, come back and read them again. Some I can see straight away are not going to fly for me. Some amazingly good poems knock me right off my scrivener’s stool at first reading. The ones I end up taking tend to impress me pretty much straight away. Most though I need to come back to over time, either to see if I’ve missed some good qualities, or to check that my initial enthusiasm endures through time. This is why response times are usually reasonably long for submissions: good poetry deserves consideration over time.
7. Is your publication online, print or hybrid? Share your thoughts on the differences between these formats from an editorial point of view. Does your publication accept both snail mail and email submissions? Explain your policy in this regard.
All three are online publications. Online publishing has HUGE advantages. Mistakes can be corrected. On the EXTREMELY rare occasions that I might have incorrectly formatted a piece, or misremembered some spelling, or perpetrated some stylistic infelicity, that can be very quickly fixed online; not so with print. Online publication potentially (and actually I think) reaches larger — much larger — audiences than printed poetry magazines. Online poetry magazines are far more accessible than print magazines for most readers. How many print magazines do you subscribe to? By comparison, how many online poetry magazines can you read?
Shit Creek Review and The Chimaera are now permanently archived by the PANDORA project of the National Library of Australia, because as Australian-based poetry magazines with significant Australian content they are regarded as publications of national literary significance. The Flea will soon be similarly permanently archived. That means that the magazines and the work published in them will be preserved and accessible (anyone with an internet connection can read these archived issues) as long as the National Library exists, whatever the fate of the particular web sites. So the argument that web publication is ephemeral falls flat on its face. How many print magazines can say they are both permanently archived and easily accessible by anyone?
Experimentation in presentation and layout is much more cheaply and efficiently achieved through pixel rather than print. If I wanted to produce another magazine like The Flea, but with different feel and look to match different content — let’s say a 1930s look to publish Audenesque verse — that could be done much more cheaply and efficiently with an online publication than with a print publication; in fact for most small print publications that design flexibility would I think be well-nigh impossible.
All three of the zines I work with accept email or online form submissions. When I finally manage to extend my day to 48 hours, I hope to achieve some kind of print form of these magazines as well — because like almost everybody else I DO like the heft and texture of a print publication as well.
8. Talk about the challenges and opportunities involved in accepting or rejecting work submitted for publication by poets you know personally.
Well, it could be a minefield. I hope the poets who I know personally (or cyber-personally) have enough faith in my character and personal integrity to realise that I submit and reject work only on the value (as perceived by me) of the work itself.
That goes both ways. If someone I know and like submits a poem I think is not right for the particular issue, or is a bit dodgy poetically, I trust that they understand that such a decision on my part is called for by the work as I see it, not my personal relationship with them. The reverse is true too. If someone I know to dislike me (Gasp! How can they be so blind!) were to submit good work, I would publish that work (and have done).
Same with politics and other personal issues. I really do not care what the politics of a poet are. Really! If anyone submits a good poem, I will publish it because it is a good poem. That’s what I think poetry is about. It’s a transcendence of our work-a-day petty selves. I would publish Adolf Hitler’s poem if it were good enough. Same with George Bush. Benjamin Netanyahu. Joseph Stalin. Tony Blair. Jeffrey Dahmer. The Boston Strangler. Condoleeza Rice. Madeleine Albright. Hilary Clinton. John Howard. Attila the Hun. Osama Bin Laden. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jabba the Hutt. Dutch Schultz. Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno. Sarah Palin. The Spring-Heeled Terror of Stepney Green. These are all people whose politics or other personal behaviour I strongly disapprove of, and there are plenty more! But if any of them sent me a poem they had written that I judged to be a good poem (which would ipso facto therefore NOT include hate-material), I would publish it! I publish poems: I do not judge personal lives.
9. If you are a publishing poet, how does being an editor affect your performance/behavior as a poet? Do you ever publish your own work? If so, why? If not, why not?
Being an editor has completely demystified the submission and editorial process for me, and that has been very liberating. Though I’d written poems on and off since my early teens, I had hardly submitted any of my work anywhere before becoming an editor, because of laziness and also a certain awe of the whole process. I had a couple of poems published in my undergraduate days, and the Sydney Morning Herald had taken one (and paid $94 for it!) which I had submitted on a whim. And around the turn of the century I had an essay preface to Guglielmo Ferrero’s historical study Women of the Caesars published by Barnes and Noble, so that gave me a little confidence. But since becoming an editor myself, I’ve felt empowered to submit work by understanding the process, by knowing how and where to submit my particular type of writing. I get lots of rejections like anyone else, but I have had over eighty poems published in the last three years both online and in print.
Editing three poetry magazines as well as serving as a selection panelist for the sonnet magazine 14by14 means that I read and judge LOTS of poetry. Not a day goes by when I don’t read dozens of poems, and make decisions about what works in a particular poem and what does not. This has really sharpened my sense of what to do or not do in my own writing. I feel very lucky indeed to have this opportunity to work so closely and constantly with poetry. All of this is in addition to teaching literature, where I include as much poetry as possible.
I once published a poem by myself in Shit Creek Review but later regretted it and have since removed it. I’m not against other editors publishing their own work, but I’m not comfortable with it for my work.
10. Describe how you conceptualize what you are trying to achieve with each edition – e.g. do you see each edition of your magazine as a big poem, or as something else? How do you get feedback on the quality of your publication?
Of course the answer to this varies depending on which of the venues we’re talking about. Let’s take the simplest case first. The Flea wants to publish a fairly restricted field of poetic type, so it tends to attract high-quality submissions of that type. So really my job here is simply to pick the best small group of poems — never more than fourteen per issue; ideally nine — that I find in my in-tray.
At Shit Creek we drink lots of cyber-moonshine by the banks of the fabled Creek and dream up bizzaro themes for each issue. The poems then flood in from various like-minded weirdo-poets, we score ‘em and list ‘em into a schema, then the artists get to work: Pat and Don weave their magic and conjure up the distinctive (if controversial — Michael Cantor will tell you about that!) Shit Creek Look.
With The Chimaera it’s a question of picking the poet for Spotlight, and also selecting a subject for the Themed section. The trend there is towards better matching the two. The General section is simply selected on the basis of the poems we like best from the current crop of submissions: there is no real attempt to shape that selection by any other criteria than that of poetic excellence.
Thanks for having me, Nic, in this great series of interviews. I think you do a fantastic job in promoting poetry, in service of The Muse.
Paul Christian Stevens was born in Yorkshire, England but lives in Australia with his wife and numerous children, animals and citrus trees. He has an Honours Degree in English and Archaeology, and teaches Literature, Ancient History and Historiography. He has published poems and prose in print and pixel, most recently or imminently in Mannequin Envy, The Barefoot Muse, Shakespeare’s Monkey Revue, The Literary Bohemian, The HyperTexts, Goblin Fruit, Contemporary Sonnet, New Verse News, Abyss & Apex, Umbrella, Lighten Up Online, Lucid Rhythms, Ourobouros Review, Innisfree, Snakeskin, Unlikely 2.0, Centrifugal Eye and The Raintown Review.
Previous Ten Questions for Poetry Editors responses:
Steve Schroeder, Anti-
Helen Losse, Dead Mule
Susan Culver, Lily and Poetry Friends
Justin Evans, editor of Hobble Creek Review
Coming up next (once a week on Tuesdays):
Nicolette Bethel, editor of Tongues of the Ocean
James Midgley, editor of Mimesis
Reb Livingston, editor of No Tell Motel
Kate Bernadette Benedict, editor of Umbrella
Christine Klocek-Lim, editor of Autumn Sky Poetry
Lindsay Walker, poetry editor of Juked
Mary Biddinger, editor of Barn Owl Review
Edward Byrne, editor of Valparaiso Poetry Review
This series’ standing page: click here.
Previous Ten Questions series:
1. Ten Questions on Poetry
2. Ten Questions on Publication