(Negative) Critique/Criticism

As many of you know, I have huge repositories of wisdom on this blog from heads far wiser than mine on the Ten Questions and related pages. Each interview is a fascinating read of itself, but I am also slowly working on a cross-referenced index (in the column to the left) with separate pages, each holding the collective wisdom of the contributing poets on just one of the Ten Questions. So far we have Online Workshops  and the Role of the Poet and today, I’ve added a new one, (Negative) Critique/Criticism. This was based on No. 4 of the Ten Questions, which was:

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

Some respondents focused on Prevallet’s remarks concerning the inability of many poets to take criticism and how reviews/criticism are sometimes used to back-stab or back-scratch and advance personal agendas. Rob blames “the poetic ego, which is usually huge.” Scavella talks about the advantages to meaningful critique of anonymity and/or an absence of personal relations between critic and poet. Julie doesn’t see much changing with regard to the general sensitiveness of poets to criticism and Greg seems largely to agree, while Steve says that although poets may be sensitive, it is not always without cause, given the reviews out there that “blur the lines between commenting on the work and make ad hominem attacks”. Tony is my personal hero on this one, go read his response. Howard, Katy and C.E. Chaffin focus mainly on the formal literary criticism end of things and maintain the picture is nothing so dire as Prevallet claims.

I have to say that the referenced article is somewhat all over the place, as more than one of those responding remarked, but it seemed a handy jumping off point for Question No. 4, since it seemed to me to cover pretty much the full range of criticism – from the problematic of venomous and/or simply backscratching individual reviews of a peer’s work, to the big guns of formal literary criticism, which evaluates a body of work in relation to its broader socio-politico-whatevero context.

And the two are surely part of the same continuum and what therefore might be of concern – if I understand Prevallet correctly – is that the flaws and contaminants present (writ small) at the small individual end of things are bound to show up (writ huge) somehow at the larger collective end, to everyone’s detriment.

Do they?

Anyhow, go read the page.

Warmest thanks once again to the contributing poets. Yours is most definitely the gift that keeps on giving.

Critical Slough of Despond

Still in a very plastic hot-wax indeterminate sort of state about critiquing others’ poetry. Where I used somehow to be able to just march in briskly say oh, yes, this and oh, yes, that, I now don’t seem to be able to determine what this or that or anything else is any more.

Once a writer has got beyond the usual yeek-cliches-and-abstractions stage and has stopped obssessive-compulsive telling, once they have a good grip on the basics of the craft – what is there to separate one poet from another but the personal taste of the reader? We respond to what we read the way we are.

Critiquing others’ work now just seems an exercise in talking about myself. And a rather futile one at that.  


Criticism is a misconception: we must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves, as secretary-of-his-sensations Emile Cioran would have it.

Blog-posted poems redux

Many, many thanks to editors Eric Melbye of Segue and Leah Browning of the Apple Valley Review for framing the case against accepting poems posted to personal blogs and to editors Reb Livingston of No Tell Motel and Susan Culver of Lily for putting the case in favor of doing so (their respective thoughts appear in the last four posts below).

I’ve started a standing page listing publications on each side of the debate here (link also in the standing page column to the left), with, where relevant, some additional remarks from editors who responded to my queries while I researched this topic.  Many thanks to all those who took the time to respond. If you’d like to add to it, please post a comment.

The bottom line in my view is that the poetry editor community seems to be pretty much split down the middle on this topic, with good honest editors on each side of the divide.

So what’s the lesson for the blogging poet who posts poems to a personal blog? It’s a hard one. I doubt that every editor googles every submission (even those who state they prefer not to publish blogged poems must in fact at some point have done so without realizing it) so it must be possible to ‘get away’ with having posted a poem on your own blog with these editors.

One approach often seen is when poets post poems to their blogs for a short period of time then take them down so as not to fall prey to trawling editors. But even if they stay up on the blog for five minutes, they have been posted to a personal blog, surely, and don’t they therefore fall into the no-no category for some editors? From my point of view, this presents something of an ethical dilemma (although I see how others may not see it that way).

One definitive solution would be to refrain from putting a poetic syllable online until after publication (which would, in my case, definitely impoverish the writing process). Another is to be up-front with editors upon submission — which is what I am doing at the moment– adding this line to all submissions: These poems have been posted to my personal blog (URL below) but will of course be deleted when/if accepted for publication.

In more than one case, and despite careful perusal of submissions guidelines, I have only found out after submission that the editor is on the no-blogged-poems side of the debate.

So although I am not sure which way I will end up going on this one, what is clear to me is that there is currently enough ambiguity surrounding the definition of publication with regard to personal blogs to make it reasonable for editors to EDIT THEIR SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES (pleeeeeez) and spell out their policy toward blog-posted poems. That way submitting poets don’t waste their own and editors’ time with ineligible submissions and we can all get on with our lives.

As a final thought, I tend to agree with Harry, who wrote in his comment on Eric Melbye’s post:

Personally I have have a sneaking suspicion that the poetry world hasn’t worked out its relationship with the internet yet in a more profound sense than just questions of submission guidelines. Poetry is a minority interest medium with a geographically dispersed readership, and it can be delivered successfully online. The fit between poetry and the internet just seems too good for it not to end up profoundly changing the way poetry is delivered to people.

Newspapers are haemorrhaging readers all the time and having to find ways of adapting to the brave new world; do we really believe that more than a very few print poetry journals are sustainable in the long term? I think the real question is how to do internet-centred poetry publication which is financially sustainable.

But I guess that’s a long argument for another day.

‘Lily’ editor on blog-posted poems

Susan Culver is editor of Lily, which does accept poems previously posted to a personal blog.

Susan writes:

First, to clarify Lily’s position on previously published work: The guidelines – as of this moment – state, “Regarding all submissions, previously published work will be considered as long as you still hold the rights to said work and state where it has previously appeared so we can give credit where credit is due.”

No, there’s nothing currently mentioned there about blogs and online workshops. Should there be? Well, yes, there probably should be and could be. And modifying the guidelines when it becomes apparent to myself and/or my editorial staff that they should be modified is not something that I struggle with.

Even though the guidelines already mention that previous publications are considered, the question then becomes whether, as with previous journal publications, it’s necessary when submitting to Lily to list that the work has been posted to a blog or workshopped online.

My personal feeling is this: I hope that every submission I receive has been workshopped in one way or another, prior to submission, whether it be through a physical reading group, an online workshop, a blog or even via email with an honest friend.

Why? Because if the work wasn’t meant to be read, then I dare say that there’d be no reason for publishing at all.

I believe it is the author’s right (and responsibility) to test the readability of their work with a smaller group of their choosing before offering it on a larger scale to the readership of a journal. It is the author’s right (and responsibility) to confer with other creative minds. To receive feedback that not only can improve a specific piece of work but can also hone the writer’s general skills and broaden their views of what they are hoping to achieve through their words. In a time where there are so many published writers and so many places in which to read good writing, it is the author’s right (and responsibility) to be a partner with the publisher in sharing their work and garnering a strong readership for it.

Workshopping, in my experience, makes for polished submissions. And polished submissions make for good reading. And – to answer my own question regarding Lily’s guidelines – no, I don’t really need to know whether you’ve workshopped prior to submission or not. I’m assuming you have.

Now, as for Mr. Melbye’s response, I’d like to reply to a few specific points, if I may:

1. “Journals with a small circulation and readership (usually created by individuals, often writing outside of the world of academia) accept previously published work regardless of where it originally appeared much more frequently than large-scale, academic/commercial journals do.”

I can’t speak for all small circulation journals, but as an “individual, often writing outside the world of academia”, I can say that it is my opinion that there is a whole world outside the world of academia. And, in that world, there are lovers of poetry. There are those who seek words not for their academic value, but for all the images and feelings they create. Somewhere, someone works a lot of long, hard hours and sometimes, beyond the basic act of survival, it is the dreams that come from a single, beautiful line of poetry that keep them going. That give them strength.

Somewhere, there’s someone who believes that they are alone. That no one has ever felt the way they’ve felt. Until they read a poem offered by a stranger and it speaks to them. And it tells them they are not invisible and they’re not alone.

I’ve been, and I am, one of those people. And there are thousands of situations I could list. Thousands of reasons for ordinary people to read poetry outside of the classroom environment, to want poetry and – yes – to write poetry. Academia often has little to do with the need for beautiful things.

2. “I’m guessing editors of such journals are in love with being editors and with the seeming authority that comes with that title, or they’re interested in sharing literature with the world regardless of whether it’s already been shared or not.”

No. And yes.

I’m not in love with the title. In fact, it often scares the heck out of me. With publishing comes this notion of publishing responsibly. Of having editorial standards. Of taking on the act of deciding – for the readers of one journal which has readers from all over the globe – what will be published. What I can offer the space to. What the readers will find in that space.

It means saying no a lot. Often when I want to say yes. It means saying no to people I admire and often not because I don’t appreciate the work but simply because, with limited space and time to work with each month, someone else’s work impacted me more.

It means saying no when I, myself, hate to be told no. It means sending out rejections for work to people who probably feel the same way I do when my own work gets rejected.

But then again, month after month, I also get to say yes. I get to present work that has touched me. Work that has conjured dreams and given strength. I get to say, “Wow, that was so good that I’ve read it a dozen times and I’ve gone to sleep with it running through my mind.” I get to hope, along with the writers of the work, that the readers feel it too.

That is what I’m in love with.

3. “To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t mind publishing work that appeared on a blog, or was previously published on a personal web site, especially if it was published years in the past. The problem is that that policy would create a slippery slope I simply don’t have time to navigate. I don’t have time to consider, on a case by case basis, whether a submission should count as a previous publication–I receive far, far too many submissions for that.”

I would venture to guess, admittedly without any hardcore statistics, that most “unpublished” work has actually been shared by the writer in one way or another before being submitted for publication. It has been emailed to a friend or colleague. It has been quietly workshopped and quietly polished in the hopes that you will find it worthy of being offered to your readership.

To say that you want something that has never been shared before so that you don’t have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether sharing constitutes previous publication is to say that you either want your writers composing their work in a vacuum or at least insisting to you that they have been writing in a vacuum. It is to say that you don’t want them – prior to sending it to you – trying it out on a readership or trying to find ways to make it better for your readership. I can’t reconcile that idea with the learning aspect of writing and publishing. Or with the real-world aspect of writing for publication.

While fully respecting and encouraging your right as editor to set your guidelines however you wish, I just wonder what ever happened to finding that work which takes your breath away and not caring whether it’s been published already or not. Only whether you can publish it now. Because it’s worth publishing. It’s worth being shared. Because the whole world should read it and you’re just thankful to have had the chance to be a part of that.

And, is the poetry community such a small one that your readers will see something in your journal and say – “Oops, I’ve already seen that in so-and-so’s blog or such-and-such journal and I can’t possibly fathom ever reading it again”? Is the poetry community such a pretentious one that it would dismiss you or your contributors if it ever saw the words “previously published” on one of your pages?

Yes, it takes time to read submissions. I have a staff of four volunteer assistants who spend a lot of their time helping me make sure that everything that is submitted to Lily is read and considered by more than one mind and one pair of eyes. That the work which amazes us doesn’t pass us by due to the number of submissions we receive. In this point, I think you and I agree. There is not enough time to consider on a case-by-case basis whether a submission should count as a previous publication or not.

I guess the main difference, though, is how we respond if it does, in fact, count as a previous publication.

Thanks again, Nic, for the opportunity to participate. Thanks, too, to Eric for his responses. There is much food for thought in this conversation.

Susan Culver

‘Apple Valley Review’ editor on blog-posted poems

Leah Browning is the editor of the Apple Valley Review which does not accept poems that have previously been posted to a personal blog.

Leah writes:

Before the internet, the term “previously published” was pretty straightforward for writers. Typing a poem onto a piece of paper and showing it to a few close friends, writing it in your diary, including it in your annual Christmas letter, or handing copies of it out to a critique group did not mean that the poem had been published in any traditional sense.

Technology has muddied this issue. For many people, blogs, personal webpages, and online critique groups serve these same purposes. The difference, of course, is that in most cases, the poem can now be accessed by anyone, at any time, from anywhere in the world.

Does your publication accept for publication poems previously posted to personal blogs or online workshops? If so, why, and if not, why not?

In general, no. I’ll answer this more specifically in a minute.

The Apple Valley Review falls into the first category that Eric Melbye described; it is a small-scale journal with no university affiliation. Still, like Segue, we do not knowingly read or accept previously published work.

In my particular case, there are two main reasons that come to mind:

First, there are millions of writers and great pieces of writing. I’d rather use my limited time, energy, resources, and space to promote writing that has not yet found a venue.

Second, accepting work that has been previously published in print journals delegitimizes online journals. I don’t want to be part of a second tier that only comes after “real” (i.e., print) journals.

However, this is not meant in any way as a criticism of any journal that does accept reprints. Giving a wider audience to great writing is a laudable pursuit, and I only intend this as an explanation for my individual decision regarding previously published work.

(Re: blog postings) Do your submissions guidelines clearly spell out your position in this regard?

No, I guess they don’t, for the same basic reasons that Eric Melbye mentioned in his post. There are so many different ways that writing can be used. If your poem was published on a series of postcards, has it been published? What if it appeared in your company newletter? A print ad? What if you sent it in an e-mail to all of your friends, and one of them put it on his website? Etc.

I’ll go back to blogs now, though, since that was the real topic here. I said that we don’t consider previously published work. So where do blogs fit in? Work posted on a blog is not published–not in the sense that you could add it to your resume or list it as a credit–but it is widely available. Judging by submission guidelines, it seems that whether these preclude publication in journals that don’t accept previous publication varies from one journal to the next.

In our case, this is a relatively small journal, and I do sometimes go on a case-by-case basis. I prefer work that has never been in print in any form, especially online because it’s already readily available. I have to come clean here, though, and say that I don’t necessarily rule a piece out because the writer posted it on his blog or the Poems page of his personal website six years ago. Very reluctantly, I’ve made a couple of exceptions.

I agree with Eric, though, that this is a slippery slope, and I’d be even more reluctant to make exceptions in the future. While I was thinking about this issue today, I pondered the fact that I’ve never considered a piece of writing posted on a blog “published.” But why isn’t this a form of self-publishing like any other? Wouldn’t a Lulu-published book be added to a list of credits or a resume? In both cases, the writer made the work available to an audience.

Regardless, the solution here seems simple enough. If you want to see your work published in a journal, either don’t post it on your blog, or wait until after it has been published in print or online and then post it on your blog. Alternatively, post it wherever you want, and only submit to journals that accept reprints. (I highly recommend Duotrope’s Digest to anyone who wants to search for journals using this or any other relevant criteria.)

My goal is to support and promote writers and their work. I think that most editors feel this way. And I feel that most writers operate in good faith: they attempt to follow submission guidelines, etc. Again, I agree with Eric, who may have been joking but still raised a valid point. Sometimes writers and editors can start to feel animosity toward each other, perhaps because of what writers see as arbitrary rules or editors see as a lack of respect for guidelines that usually aren’t arbitrary at all. This is a partnership, though, and listening to and supporting each other in any way possible only elevates and strengthens literature as a whole.

Best wishes,