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 Helen Losse, poetry editor of the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
1. What drew you to editorial work in the first place?
I never envisioned myself as Helen Losse, Poetry Editor. To be honest, when Valerie MacEwan, editor and publisher of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, posted a call for help, I was looking for an opportunity to network.
Val had published a few of my poems, including my very favorite poem ever—the one that tells everything about me: Voices – so I already knew Val.
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?
Oh my goodness, an “editorial trajectory” sounds like something that makes me want to lie on the floor and stay there a long, long time.
When I first joined the Mule staff in March of 2005, I was co-Poetry Editor along with Kevin Blankenship. Kevin is a great poet and was a fine editor, but he was just too busy with his job, a new baby, and his own writing. He’s still a fine Mule friend. In fact, there’s a chapbook by Kevin in the June Mule.
The Mule’s submission system was convoluted, with both poetry and prose going to the same place and poor Val having to send submissions on to us. We then had to make decisions and send them back to her so she could post them to the site. The Mule became idle for about a year while Rob, Val’s husband, installed a new publishing platform and security updates. Then in late 2006, or maybe very early 2007, when Val was considering closing the Mule for good—because she had just too much on her plate—we agreed to publish it for ten more years and that I would take on greater responsibility. She closed out and archived the old Mule, and we started the one we have today—with me as Poetry Editor.
Since I began as Poetry Editor (my first issue was April 2007), the Mule has had more poetry submissions than ever, and I have learned to post entries. The Mule uses WordPress software, which was easy for me to learn, because my blog, Windows Toward the World, is also on WordPress.
I plan to keep publishing as many and as diverse a group of poets from the south as I can until we decide we’re ready to archive the present Mule. I’m not sure when that will be. I think when our ten years are up, we may decide to put the Mule out to pasture. I’d like our April 2017 Dead Mule to kick butt like a donkey, jackass and a mule combined. But that’s just dreaming. In other words, I want to go out with a bang! I want it to make the Washington Post. Big Washington. Not Little Washington. At least Silliman’s Blog.
One thing for sure: The Dead Mule is Val MacEwan’s baby. I will keep the Mule afloat any time I need to, but I will not continue the Mule on my own. I like the Mule, but I love Val. We’ve become like sisters.
3. Apart from following submissions guidelines, what should a poet sending work do (or refrain from doing) to stay on your good side?
A poet should know that I treat everyone the same—well, pretty much the same. Invited poets are guaranteed publication. And each April we publish a Poet Laureate from a southern state. Yes, I have one lined up for 2010. And I let them slide on their Southern Legitimacy Statements (SLSs), that we take very seriously.
SLSs have two purposes: They are fun, and they weed out people who don’t want to think of themselves as southerners or submit in a spam-like fashion.. The Mule wants poets who like fun and who enjoy being in or from the south (or at least liking our part of the country). We publish poets from anywhere; southern-ness is state of mind not a physical location.
There is one poet who keeps sending me a poem with his bio and no SLS. I’ve told him not to do it. I’ve copied and pasted from our guidelines. But now, when I see his name in the in-box, I just hit “delete.” Life is too short to get upset over an SLS, but we don’t publish standard bios; we publish SLSs instead. And anyone who actually reads the Mule before submitting knows that SLSs are sometimes better than the poems. In fact, some are poems. We like that.
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?
I now edit on my own. I like being able to act quickly and independently. If I’m ever in doubt about anything, I consult Val. I always check out any situation that might cause problems. I see many pros, few cons.
5. What gets you most excited when you read a submission? How frequently do you get “exciting” submissions?
Most of the poems I get are good. Only once in a while does a poem strike me as brilliant. Only one—The Real South by Luke Johnson—actually made me cry.
6. Describe how you sort through and narrow down submissions and finally select pieces for publication.
Most of the poets I accept see this in my first reply: “Being published in the Mule is more than just gathering another publication credit; it’s more like joining a big ole southern family. So, welcome.” The Mule is a family that publishes poetry. We are a community that is quite inclusive. We’re liberal and open. We are representative of the south. And because we are a family and a school, we have reunions, take sabbaticals, offer classes; we have fun.
That said, we want quality work of all levels from student to Poet Laureate. A lot of real-life college professors publish in the Mule. We actually don’t reject a lot. The exception is the prima donna poet who’s more bother than he’s worth. Life goes on, even if lines aren’t indented just so. Those who can’t accept that probably don’t belong in the Mule. If I know in advance that a poet will be upset by our presentation, why not spare us both? Val even banned one poet the night she used the term prima donna poet for the first time with respect to a poet who didn’t know when to quit.
Life is too short to value poems over people. At the Mule, we will not do that. Our guidelines actually say, “… PhDs with outhouses.” We work with poets who send us imperfect poems with potential. Being published in the Mule isn’t a career move; it won’t get anyone into an MFA program, but it might just give someone his one and only poetry publication ever. We think that matters. We are southern and polite. We try to be real; writers aren’t better than others. And lots of people read the Mule.
The Mule rejects awful poems or selects only a few, if a poet send more than we want at the time. Sometimes poets get over-zealous in submission, but most seem to use good judgment. When we’re really stuck, we can always send Val’s standard rejection note: “The selection process for inclusion in The Dead Mule is both objective and subjective. It is a complicated beast. We utilize a numerical averaging system similar to the Olympic diving competition scoring method. If a particular piece is not chosen, one is always encouraged to submit something else. So, send us something else.”
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.
The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature was begun in 1995 by Valerie MacEwan as a print magazine under a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. It soon become an online only literary magazine. From time to time, we consider putting together a print issue. We accept only e-mail submissions.
8. Talk about the challenges and opportunities involved in accepting or rejecting work submitted for publication by poets you know personally.
The Mule is a family. We actually encourage the people we know to submit. If I ever have to reject a poem from a friend, I try to use the same kind of tact I do with strangers. An editor should know how to reject a poem without rejecting the poet. The Dead Mule does have a rule—maybe unwritten—not to publish the same poet in back-to-back issues.
I think one has to have a bit of an ego to submit a poem anywhere, but most of my poet-friends try to promote me as much as I promote them. I have gotten annoyed with poet-editors whose work I have published, if they constantly refuse mine. That isn’t how families work. It isn’t much of a way to be a friend either.
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?
My role as editor has helped me network with people I wouldn’t have known otherwise. And in reality, it helped me get my new book, Better With Friends (Rank Stranger Press, 2009), published. But as Carter Monroe, the poet-editor who published the book and whose press is closed to submissions, said: “You asked me for direction and advice as to how you should proceed with the manuscript and I offered to publish it . . . .”
The Dead Mule has a policy that we do not publish our own work. The only time I broke this “rule” was when I was learning the software and re-published Voices on a blog entry. I figured I wasn’t accepting my own work; Val had already done that years earlier.
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?
“Issue” is a loose term for the Mule. In the past few months, we have published nothing but poetry due to personal issues. In that sense, I guess I’ve been the Mule. But not really. We have plans to publish more prose as soon as we are able.
More goes on in the background than we are willing to tell. All of the editors of the Mule—while we are artists and editors—are rather private people. If readers know us, they probably know what’s going on. It is not a secret that Ruth Heinold, Val’s mother, died April 30 after a long illness. It is not a secret that each of us deals with her own health issues, some more serious than others. The details of our lives are another story. And those details sometimes help determine what an “issue” entails.
We have a rule at the Mule. The rule is, let’s have as few rules as possible. Let’s enjoy publishing the Mule. Let’s be glad we are editors and friends. Life is too short to value art over people. The reality is, I set the times when I want to publish. And if I need to change my mind, I do. The July 2009 issue of the Mule is called the Summer Sabbatical issue, because I’m taking a vacation. Submissions will be read after July 15.
I get feedback from e-mail and from other poets that I know personally and see at poetry readings. We get comments on blogs. Why the Dead Mule is even on Facebook. One of my editorial goals is still to network. Another is to promote my book.
Helen Losse is the Poetry Editor of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and the author of Better With Friends, published by Rank Stranger Press in 2009. Her recent poetry publications include poems in The Wild Goose Poetry Review, Shape of a Box and Blue Fifth Review. She has two chapbooks, Gathering the Broken Pieces and Paper Snowflakes. Educated at Missouri Southern State and Wake Forest Universities, she taught English in Charlotte, NC and now lives with her husband in Winston-Salem.
Previous Ten Questions for Poetry Editors responses:
Steve Schroeder, Anti-
Coming up next (once a week on Tuesdays):
Susan Culver, editor of 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
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