Ten Questions for Poetry Editors – Reb Livingston

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 Reb Livingston, editor of No Tell Motel.

1. What drew you to editorial work in the first place?

It was always something I wanted to do. For a while I thought I had to “get in” somewhere established, which was difficult not living in the vicinity of many literary publishers. I (cold) approached a few journals to see if they needed readers, assistants or whatever. Didn’t get anywhere with that. While in grad school I was selected (I don’t say “hired” because there was no compensation) to relaunch a website promoting small presses for someone who ran multiple websites and magazines. Unfortunately his reputation turned out to be perfectly accurate, he was abusive and unstable, making it impossible to continue working with him. After grad school I had fairly detailed discussions with two friends from the program about starting our own online journal, but it became clear that they wanted me because I knew how to “do stuff.” One friend wanted to call all the shots and the other seemed to be only interested in coming up with a name for the magazine. I’d bring up pressing issues like content management or the fact they both were going to have to learn html, and well, there wasn’t much enthusiasm. So I excused myself from that, and again, once I left the project, absolutely nothing transpired, confirming my suspicions. It began to occur to me that I knew how to do many things and the things I didn’t know how to do, I could likely learn. It also occurred to me that I’m smart, creative, responsible and quite capable of doing what I want to do on my own. For what I am not capable of doing (like design), it’s worth finding somebody who’s sympathetic to poetry and pay her some (sadly) small amount. If I’m going to do this time-consuming, unpaid work, I should at least be doing the work I want to be doing, the way I want to do it. Why hand over authority? This seems quite obvious now, but it took me a while to get to the place where I could give myself permission to just do exactly that. Once I began giving myself permission, it kind of became contagious in other aspects of my work from what I write to how I publish. This bothers some poets. They believe there are rules to be followed. They are free to believe whatever they like. As am I.

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?

No Tell Motel’s 5 year anniversary is this August. I’ve written about this at length in other interviews available online, so not to repeat myself too much I’ll just say that in 2004 I got pregnant. I had a (silly) crisis. Since none of my (half) attempts becoming involved in editing/publishing ever panned out, I feared that this was it for me. I was going to become a mother, which oddly I considered an end, when in reality it was a miraculous beginning. I felt like I had to do something before the baby arrived. So all summer I worked with my co-editor, Molly Arden, and designer, Nancy King, on No Tell Motel. It launched by summer’s end and in February 2005 I had my son and realized what I fool I’d been. But of course, sometimes being a fool is a good thing. In this case it was.

3. Apart from following submissions guidelines, what should a poet sending work do (or refrain from doing) to stay on your good side?

Before you send that penis poem, ask yourself, “Did my poem earn its penis?” Seriously, the design of NTM has led certain poets to a very curious perception of the work we publish. Yes we publish love poems (in addition to many other types of poems, perhaps you might want to read some), yes we’ve published some “sex” poems too, and the occasional penis has appeared. Operative word: occasional. Even the Bedside Guide anthology series that specializes in “sexy” is not rife with penis. Penis is like salt, NTM uses it sparingly.

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?

Sometimes I co-edit, but lately, more and more I’ve been editing on my own. That’s because my co-editor, Molly, has suffered a series of health setbacks. I hope soon she’ll fully recover and be able to resume her role as co-editor. When Molly was involved with the magazine, we’d discuss and decide on submissions together. When we disagreed, or when she wasn’t able to convince me otherwise, my decision was the final call, but that didn’t happen very often. I miss not being able to run submissions that I’m not sure about past another editor. From time to time, I’ll run one by a few poet friends whose opinions I respect.

5. What gets you most excited when you read a submission? How frequently do you get “exciting” submissions?

3-5% of our submissions I consider exciting and end up using. Exciting are poems that I really like and am thrilled to be given the chance to put them out into the world.

6. Describe how you sort through and narrow down submissions and finally select pieces for publication.

Since Molly’s been sidelined, NTM only accepts submissions two months per year: May and October. The first thing I do is log all the submissions. While I’m logging, I do a quick scan of the submission. If it’s obvious from the get-go its something we’re not going to use, I mark that down and respond quickly. There’s no reason to hold on to work I know I won’t be using. This clears out 20-40% of the subs and yes, there are some very glaring signals that makes it that easy to immediately reject: failure to send at least 5 poems, sending an attached filed without contacting us beforehand, “greeting card” verse, excessive use of PENIS or other personal flag words, etc. Then I do another round where I read the poems once. If I don’t have the urge the read the poems a second time, I respond with a no thank you. Again, if I’m not jibbing much with the poems, there’s no reason I should hold on to them any longer than I already have. With the rest of the subs, which could be anywhere from 20-40%, I spend a lot of time rereading and considering the poems. I slowly whittle that pile down — what’s left after all that is what I publish. Occasionally I’ll get something that I immediately know I certainly MUST publish. I respond to those pretty quickly.

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.

No Tell Motel is completely online, we do not accept anything via snail mail. There’s no reason for me to accept snail mail because everything is done electronically. I don’t wish to contribute to the waste of paper or subject poets to the soaring cost of postage. Even if I saw a poem on paper that I wanted to publish, I’d still need it in electronic form. Even print publications need an electronic copy. Virtually every print publication that’s accepted my work came back and asked me to email them electronic versions.

8. Talk about the challenges and opportunities involved in accepting or rejecting work submitted for publication by poets you know personally.

Hater-type poets often bemoan friends publishing one another, completely ignorant to the long and rich literary tradition of poets doing exactly that. The Beats, the Black Mountain Poets, the New York School, pretty much every poetry “school” or “scene” or “community did and continues to do exactly that. That is WHY poetry continues to thrive. The whole contest system has really screwed with how poets approach publishing. If a press or a magazine runs a contests with an entry fee, they are both legally and ethically bound to run it fairly. That means friends don’t select friends and teachers don’t select students. Every manuscript needs to be given the same opportunity. Fine. But contests are only one form of publishing. I’ve written at length about their many flaws and short-comings, so I won’t go on about that any longer here except to reiterate that has a lot to do with why some poets have this ridiculous and counter-productive idea that friends or acquaintances shouldn’t support each other’s work. Friends support one another in every field of art. Visual artists, musicians, actors — they all hook each other up. That said, while I have certainly published a number of friends and acquaintances, I have published by far more strangers. Although as I get to know more poets, the percentage of poets I publish who I “know” is likely growing. Often these “strangers” who I publish become friends afterwards. For instance, some of my closest poets friendships began in the NTM slush pile, my slushpile-turned-friends include Jill Alexander Essbaum, Bruce Covey (who later published my first book, Your Ten Favorite Words), Hugh Behm Steinberg (who I hadn’t met in person until after I published his book), Rebecca Loudon (who I have yet to meet in person, yet have a strong relationship with via e-mail), Lea Graham, Anne Gorrick, Charlie Jensen and many others. How could I not become friends with these wonderful poets? I don’t know how anyone active in poetry and publishing a magazine can publish only strangers. That said, I reject the work of friends more often than I accept it. Whenever a friend tells me that he’s wants to send work I tell him that’s fine, but only send if he can handle the possibility of rejection because statistically I will reject it. Usually people understand that. Occasionally they don’t and it’s uncomfortable for a while. In a few instances, “dear” friends have freaked on my ass and in those rare cases, those friendships have suffered permanent damage. Occupational hazard.

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 makes me more appreciative of the work of other editors. It encourages me to focus on what’s working and what isn’t working, and focus less on the individuals who give very much to poetry. It spurs within me a great amount of disdain towards those who make vile personal attacks against editors and publishers. The poems, the books, the magazines, the essays, the reviews, the projects are all fair game for criticism, in fact that criticism is vital and necessary. But I’ve witnessed, and in a few cases experienced, some spit-tinged attacks. Those attacks rarely touch on the quality of the work but more on how one accomplished the project, or who knew who or who blew who or whatever meaningless nonsense that is nothing more than a FOX News-style diversion from what actually matters, i.e. the work. I haven’t published my poems in NTM — yet, but hey, why not? ‘Cause someone else doesn’t think I should? If they’re not paying my medical benefits, why would I care? They ain’t the boss of me. I have a new book coming out in the fall called God Damsel. My press, No Tell Books, is publishing it. So why shouldn’t I publish poems from that book? If over the past 5 years, thousands of poets decided NTM to be good enough to send their own work for consideration, why isn’t it good enough for my own poems? If over 60 editors have found my poems good enough to include in their own magazines and anthologies, why shouldn’t I? To be perfectly honest, I’m rather fond of my poems. NTM would be lucky to get them!

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?

Feedback comes in many ways. Sometimes people write me e-mails or to the poets we publish. Sometimes people write about NTM on their blogs or mention the magazine in articles. I receive a lot of feedback from poets when I meet them in person. A poem by Craig Morgan Teicher first published in NTM will appear in BAP 2009 and a number of our poems have appeared in Best American Erotic Poems and Sundress’ Best of the Net, so I suppose that’s feedback too. No Tell Motel doesn’t do issues. It’s an online magazine. We follow the new media model and offer new content (poems) on a regular basis, keeping in tune with how readers read online. We publish a new poet each week, a new poem every (week) day. Issues are a print concept. Other online publications figured this out in the 1990’s. Even the traditional print publications with web presences figured this out by 2000. I know of few other online publications that publish monthly, quarterly or (gasp) yearly issues, outside of the forever suffering and behind literary pubs. People get pissed when I point this out. Despite the disdain I generate by repeating that, I continue to do so because I believe it’s very important. Poets frequently discuss “relevance”, but what is more relevant than HOW people are reading, now, in the 21st century?

Reb Livingston is the author of Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books) and co-editor of The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel anthology series. Her next book, God Damsel, will be out in early 2010. She is also the editor of No Tell Motel and publisher of No Tell Books.


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.

Coming up next (once a week on Tuesdays):

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

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

6 thoughts on “Ten Questions for Poetry Editors – Reb Livingston”

  1. I love the work Reb is doing and what she has to say about the world of poetry. Terrific interview :) Looking forward to checking back more at this blog!

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