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?
The hubris of youth and belief there was room for yet another journal out there, to somehow lurk quietly behind the scenes. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to say? Actually, I read an interview featuring my friend and mentor, Dave Lee. He recounted a story about a post-grad seminar he was taking where he was asked if Four Quartets by Eliot should be considered an American poem. After some discussion on birth and citizenship, the instructor said, “You are all missing the point.” As it turns out, the instructor was making a point about American poetry being centered on place― that American poets in large are creatures of place. I knew that place had (and continues to) have a great deal of influence on my poetry. I realized that there should be an up front acknowledgement of place. I looked around and I didn’t see many journals which were open about place being all that important to American poetry, so I decided to do something about it. Hobble Creek Review: A journal of poetry and place is named for one of the central landmarks of my youth.
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?
We (the editorial “we”) are in the middle of our third year and we are getting around to applying for an ISSN. I think we are doing just fine. I have been really fortunate to have some fine poets helping me out at critical moments, which seem to come up with every issue. Editorial ambitions? That’s a loaded question. I really don’t think I have any ambitions other than to put out the best poetry I can. I do have one standard in this regard. I would rather not put out an issue than publish poems I don’t like. The truth is I am learning as I am going.
3. Apart from following submissions guidelines, what should a poet sending work do (or refrain from doing) to stay on your good side?
My first suggestion would to be to accept with a bit of grace the consequences for not following the guidelines. Until you edit a journal, and I know my journal is smaller than most, you never will know the dark side of poets and their pettiness. As a poet I thought everyone behaved well, and accepted rejection and chastisement from editors with the understanding that it is the editor’s job to be firm and fair. I certainly found out that no matter how many times you say something like ‘submit only once per period’ or ‘no attachments,’ you still get them and no amount of being civil stops some submitters from blowing a gasket when you reject their work. Take rejection and criticism like an adult, especially if you are at fault for not following the guidelines.
And that would be the next thing: Understand that a rejection is not a personal statement about one’s character or worth. The poems might be terrible but that shouldn’t be taken to heart.
One last thing: I like it when I come across a poet who clearly puts the poetry first. I like a cover letter but I don’t like commercials. Poets need to realize they aren’t going to impress me by telling me how many places they have published. It implies they are doing me a favor by submitting work to my journal, when in fact we are part of a greater symbiosis.
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 am a one man show. My wife helps me with the html coding, but I am the guy who reads all of the submissions and makes all of the decisions. I am also the guy who makes all of the mistakes—and I make plenty of them. I don’t know if I could handle this if I worked with other people simply because doing this by myself means I can wait a week or move up my schedule a week if I want without forcing anyone else to fall in line.
5. What gets you most excited when you read a submission? How frequently do you get “exciting” submissions?
I like when poets take our stated purpose of place and twist it into their own definition of what place is. Poets are amazingly creative, but so many look at ‘place’ and automatically think of a poem about the moon or ‘Tintern Abbey’ and dismiss addressing place in other ways. Still, I have been lucky in that there has been only one issue out of all the issues we have put out where I never had a genuinely exciting and thrilling submission.
6. Describe how you sort through and narrow down submissions and finally select pieces for publication.
First, I am of the belief that an editor can immediately see which poems have or do not have a chance of making ‘the cut’ so to speak. I am lucky in that I have a low volume of submissions, making my process rather easy.
I start by doing an initial reading as the submissions come in. If I think I want to use the poems, I move the submission into another folder for a later reading. If not, the submission remains in my in-box until it is rejected. After I do a second reading and decide I want a poem, I create a page in my new issue’s folder, and contact the poet. I find that if I create pages as I go, the work is much easier. If I am still unsure, I give it one more chance. If I can’t make up my mind after reading the poem three times then I automatically reject it. Sometimes this means I reject good poems because I simply cannot find my way inside of them. This is why poets should never take my rejection personally. I have most certainly rejected tremendous poems simply because I cannot relate to it.
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.
My journal is on-line. I find that my journal can remain small because I don’t have to fill a certain amount of pages, or it can have extra pages without trying to figure in any extra costs. I only accept e-mail submissions, as they are simply easier to deal with. I like publishing electronically because I make a lot of typos and if an author catches one, I can go in and change it with no delay or hassle. I submit to both types of journals and I think there is room for both and each should be treated for the quality of work they put out. When the on-line journal first started there may have been some aesthetic objections to be made, but today there really can be nothing to object to.
8. Talk about the challenges and opportunities involved in accepting or rejecting work submitted for publication by poets you know personally.
I have never cared about appearances. I will publish my friends at the drop of a hat if the poem is well written. I truly don’t care for a reputation as an editor. I believe my job as an editor is to leave as little imprint or mark on any issue I put out. I should be invisible. The poet should be invisible. The poem is what matters, and if it is a good poem and I am lucky enough to publish it, what should it matter that I know the poet?
I don’t want to sound as if I am bragging or trying to butter up my friends or anything, but most of the poets I know are really incredible, which means if they ever send me work it’s likely to get accepted. Not because they are acquaintances of mine, but because they are good enough at what they do to know what to send me. I envy them all. A lot of times I will see a poem I like and simply ask the poet if it is still available.
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?
Actually, being an editor has confirmed most of everything I already did as a submitting poet. I feel kind of good about my track record as a submitter, seeing all that comes across my desk as an editor. I am gratified that I was taught early on by some very kind poets and editors the right way to submit and how to be gracious in rejection.
I will never self-publish my own poetry. If I can’t convince someone else that my poetry is good enough, then I will just have to try harder. I honestly believe that if I were to publish my own poetry at HCR, I will have taken any credibility away from my own process and standing as a poet.
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?
Whether I want to admit it or not, I think each issue takes on a personality, almost like a hidden narrative. I may not be able to express it, but I can certainly feel when I have started in one direction with a group of poems and how other poems don’t work.
Most important, I want to create an issue which is more than a collection of the best poems I receive. I want each issue to have a personality and be reflective of something which points the reader in a specific direction. I want each of my issues to create momentum within the reader and make the reader reconsider the so-called limitations of place as a theme.
People e-mail me from time to time, telling me they like what they see. I always pass on the praise when someone makes comment on a specific poem. I have received hate mail, but I have learned to accept that I am never going to make everyone happy.
Justin Evans is the author of three chapbooks of poetry, most recently Working in the Bird House (Foothills Publishing, 2008). He lives with his wife and three sons in rural Nevada, where he teaches History and Language Arts at the local high school. He blogs here.
Previous Ten Questions for Poetry Editors responses:
Coming up next (once a week on Tuesdays):
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.
PreviousTen Questions series: