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.
1. What drew you to editorial work in the first place?
“I guess you could say it’s a call” as Sylvia Plath says in Lady Lazarus. Of course, the web has made it possible for one person with a vision to become a publisher, and I did have a vision for a journal that would feature poems that work around a strong, central premise: an “umbrella idea.”
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?
Editing itself is an old knack. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I worked as a book editor for Simon and Schuster, and then as a freelance for a while. Umbrella represents a return to working with texts and authors, work I truly enjoy. Umbrella’s emphasis on poetry makes the project even more congenial.
My ambition is to keep Umbrella’s standards high by publishing excellent poetry of an eclectic nature. I also feel that certain boilerplate styles hamper poetry’s power, so it’s also a key mission of mine to showcase poems that employ a fresh and ringing diction.
3. Apart from following submissions guidelines, what should a poet sending work do (or refrain from doing) to stay on your good side?
I appreciate what any editor appreciates, a professional approach. No snowing us with multiple submissions during a reading period, no simultaneous submissions if the journal doesn’t allow it, no complaints about the guidelines. There’s no need to be unctuous or ingratiating—those things convey insincerity—but please don’t rankle an editor from the get go! Unusual font faces and double-spacing make on-screen reading difficult. Keep good records so you don’t resubmit rejected poems by mistake and certainly do not be as clueless as the poet who submitted a poem to me that I had already published!
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?
Two wonderful co-editors—Rachel Dacus and C. E. Chaffin—serve as contributing editors and do prose pieces and interviews, as well as contributing a poem or two. They also serve as sounding boards when I am uncertain about a piece or when I recognize a submission that is in their special purviews. Rachel, for example, is my go-to person for ekphrastic poems. This year I’ve also been working with a guest editor, Robert Schechter, who has curated a special section on verse riddles for our Bumbershoot lighter-side annual. These people are all pro’s; there are no cons.
Otherwise, it’s my show, as it were. I read all the submissions, make most of the choices, and serve as my own webmaster. I see this as a big pro too. Response time is kept to a minimum and the journal kept true to its mission. Frankly, I have no desire to work on an editorial committee where consensus might hold sway over editorial focus.
5. What gets you most excited when you read a submission? How frequently do you get “exciting” submissions?
More frequently than I ever would have imagined! Each poem chosen excites in its own way. A poem scintillates when its umbrella idea marries perfectly to its execution … and when it moves me on a deep level.
It is also exciting to have the opportunity to publish a renowned poet, and we were just bouncing with excitement when Richard Wilbur gave us some children’s verse for our Bumbershoot annual this year (Summer 2009).
6. Describe how you sort through and narrow down submissions and finally select pieces for publication.
Nine times out of ten, I winnow them out right away. Really, this isn’t a difficult process because nine times out of ten, the poems simply do not fit with our published guidelines and mission. The remainder I sort into “yes” and “maybe” and a minority of “maybes” make the cut.
Often I create sample pages for the likely poems before I accept them. I want to read them over many times and see them formatted for the screen before making a final decision. It’s painful but sometimes I do wind up deleting these trial pages because, in the end, I did not find them rereadable—and Umbrella tags itself as “the supremely rereadable electronic journal.” Editorial preferences—mine anyway—are more elastic than you might think, though. I tend to “hang out” with the formalists and Umbrella is a form-friendly journal, but I write poems in many styles and moods and I want to publish poems written in many styles and moods.
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.
It is possible that Umbrella will do some print versions in the future via print-on-demand technology but for the time being we’re an online journal only. I have neither the wherewithal nor the space to accommodate snail-mail submissions, nor the staff to retype the poems from hard copy. I have to html-code the poems and prose pieces but not retype them.
In some ways, the two areas—electronic and print—seem to be coalescing. Some print journals now accept online submissions and then format the acceptances into pdf files, which are then transmitted electronically for printing. How streamlined! No more deep piles of paper slush to wade through, no more copyediting manuscripts by hand and then mailing them off to a printer. I don’t think I’d enjoy working for a print journal which conducted business in the old way.
The print journal is still a beloved format for poets and readers but, given the economics and the new technologies, we will soon reach a tipping point and most poetry will be published in electronic form only. That’s not just a prediction of my own.
8. Talk about the challenges and opportunities involved in accepting or rejecting work submitted for publication by poets you know personally.
One becomes friendly with poets one admires and such connections bring a high caliber of work in. The down side is that, if you have any editorial integrity at all, you have to turn their work down on occasion—and then you feel like a cad. If they are real friends, they understand your position and don’t hold grudges.
An appearance of clubbiness is death to a journal, in my opinion. Though Umbrella get submissions from lots of new people each quarter, the proportion of publishable work from that batch is lower than I would hope. It remains an important goal for me to keep the roster fresh.
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?
I can’t say my behavior has changed but my attitude has improved. I used to dread rejections and feel quite miffed by them. Since I’ve been editing, I don’t give personal rejections a passing thought. After all, I have rejected things that have found good homes elsewhere; a rejection doesn’t communicate anything more definitive than that a poem didn’t appeal to one particular journal at one particular time.
As for self-publishing, I’ve only published a little light verse in our Bumbershoot annual and some editorial prose. In general, I believe it is bad form to publish your own poetry.
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?
Our “Orsorum” section is a miscellany. When poems on similar subjects make the cut, I place them in sequence for continuity—but any such continuity is just a happy accident. Our theme sections are a different matter. We’ve done special extras of “hot” poems, “cold” poems, spiritual poems and the like. Even so, the different tones and stances are quite remarkable. I don’t want to publish “one big poem,” I want to feature the multi-faceted and the multifarious.
Feedback comes in the form of both personal emails and public postings to online venues, and feedback has been encouraging. Then again, perhaps those who feel that Umbrella ought to be rained into the storm drains just aren’t speaking up!
Kate Bernadette Benedict is the author of the full-length poetry collection Here from Away. She lives in New York City, where she edits Umbrella, and where she has worked in the fields of book publishing and finance.
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
Paul Stevens, editor of the Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera and The Flea
Nicolette Bethel, editor of Tongues of the Ocean.
James Midgley, editor of Mimesis.
Reb Livingston, editor of No Tell Motel.
Coming up next (once a week on Tuesdays):
This series’ standing page: click here.
Previous Ten Questions series: