Ten Questions for Poetry Editors – Mary Biddinger

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 Mary Biddinger, editor of Barn Owl Review.

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

I was tired of reading poems about flowers. I was bitter and wanted my own mechanism for revenge. I wanted to find a hobby big enough to accommodate my bounteous ego. I wanted to be taller, funnier. I wanted to be the one leaving remarks on rejection slips. I wanted to tell people to dig deeper, to care more about the human condition, all in mocking purple cursive.

Just kidding. That’s not me at all. Here’s the truth.

I believe in a version of literary karma where the good you do for others somehow comes back to help you. There could be a practical explanation for this phenomenon, such as how increased exposure to poetry through editing can positively affect an editor’s own poetry, but I prefer the mystical version of it. I was drawn to editorial work not for the thrill of playing god, but for the potential the job has to make people happy. I also feel quite passionately about poems, and wanted the chance to advocate at length for a poem that struck me.

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?

I started in 1996 as an Assistant Editor for Mid-American Review. From there I worked as a slush reader for ACM, and an Associate Editor of RHINO. After moving to Akron, I used part of a personal Ohio Arts Council grant to start Barn Owl Review. We don’t have that many litmags in Northeast Ohio, and I wanted to spark something here.

In addition to continuing to edit BOR, I’m also the editor of the Akron Series in Poetry. That means reading over 500 book manuscripts a year, choosing finalists for the Akron Poetry Prize, and making decisions about my own editor’s choice title(s). On top of that, I serve on the jury of the Open Book Competition for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.

Reading all of these submissions, both for the magazine and book contests, makes me aware of certain trends. This year I read a lot of ghazals, Portrait of _______ as _______ poems (à la my beloved James Allen Hall), and Dear ________ poems. By “a lot” I mean that it felt like the editorial version of the movie Groundhog Day. Call it Ghazal Day. Many of the poems were quite delightful. At any rate, there are definite trends, and I wonder what they say about the poetry universe at large.

Litmag editing and book editing have a lot in common, and feed into each other in a useful way. I’m also in the beginning stages of a hush-hush new endeavor that may, if rumor is true, involve publishing volumes of essays on contemporary poetics. Allegedly, I have one hell of a co-editor in this venture. But enough about the mystery project. It’ll be public soon, and I can let all of the cats out of all their respective bags.

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

I have endless good will as an editor. When I open your submission, I have nothing but affection for you and your poems. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve never published before, or if you’re someone I’ve solicited. I begin with excitement and a dorky sense of glee. I don’t care what font you use or whether your salutation is Dear Sirs or Yo Editor.

I appreciate it when submitters follow our requirement of making the sub all one file. If you send me five separate attachments, I may get lost between downloads. I like it when authors include a cover letter as the first page of the attachment. Some editors might not like quirky cover letters, but I like them if they seem sincere.

What else? I don’t know why folks withdrawing have to say, “I must withdraw my poem ‘The Shit Raccoon,’ as it has been accepted over at Blastsaddle Quarterly.” I guess I am mildly curious (and sometimes panicked! O Trey Moody, I was so afraid we’d miss out, and so glad we didn’t!) about withdrawals, but I don’t want to know, really, who else got it. I have similar qualms about book contest cover letters that list places where the manuscript was a finalist or semifinalist. It’s nice to know that the book is getting some recognition, but it seems a little like, “Jake, Fred, Paul, and Charlie all seriously considered taking me to homecoming, but didn’t. I am thereby offering you this boutonnière and hoping you’ll let me pin it to your lapel instead.” I’d never hold this against anyone, however. Nothing but good will from this girl.

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 need help. I take on a lot in my editorial life, but I am also somewhat of a delicate organism. I need people to talk to. I need someone to get excited at. So we have a fairly large editorial board with editors at various stages in their careers. In composing the editorial board, I wanted to represent a variety of sensibilities. When the subs come in I often think something like, okay, Amy Bracken Sparks will love this as much as I do, and Eric Morris may too, but I’m not sure if it’ll be Jay Robinson’s cup of tea, and so on. The best part of a varied board is being able to look past your own preferences to see the value and wonder in a poem that might not have initially jumped off the page and scrambled up your neck.

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

Risk. I like risk, whether it’s related to subject matter or form, or anything else. I also like what some people might consider “raw emotion,” but only when it’s delivered in an artful way. I want to feel your poem, whether it’s making me laugh and scaring off a crappy mood, or horrifying me and making me want to lock all of my windows. I’m someone who is quite affected by the world, and poems seem to have a transdermal influence on me sometimes.

I get the most excited when I read poems that make me think of poetry in a new way. I get excited all the freaking time. Maybe that’s why I like editorial work so much. I have been known to jump out of my chair, to shiver visibly, and to squeal after reading a particularly striking poetry submission.

I have a special interest in queer poetry. I like a good city poem. The pastoral doesn’t appeal to me purely for pastoral’s sake. Something needs to be rotting somewhere. And, of course, I am a huge fan of the well-wrought love poem.

I don’t enjoy poems about hurting cats or kittens. If such poems arrive, one of my co-editors will usually note it on the spreadsheet so that I can recuse myself and go make sure that all of my cats are still present and unharmed.

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

I am governed purely by caprice. Sort of. Thankfully, BOR has a spreadsheet system where we record our scores for poems, and provide comments/arguments. Admittedly, we are slow. Your poem may hang out in our e-folder for a while. Sometimes I freak out and have to make sure that Jay sends a contract out stat. And until we hear back, I’m sweating.

We read from June through November, and just pick poems up as we go along. We narrow poems down by arguing and advocating. Sometimes we ask for revisions. We also encourage past BOR poets to send again, but we don’t necessarily give them preference. I love it when we accept poems from folks I’ve never heard of before. I also love it when I’m blindsided by an unsolicited sub from someone I greatly admire.

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.

We are a print journal that only accepts subs by email. We’re poor. Aside from a few small grants, this magazine is funded by macaroni dinners at the Robinson and Biddinger households. We are hoping that our kids don’t get sick of macaroni, or else we might have to quit printing and become an online journal. If that’s the case, I really will have to learn web design once and for all.

BOR features a portion of its content on the website, and I do like the idea of open access to the magazine. But there’s nothing like slicing open that box of issues, nauseous over the possibility of typos or other disasters, and then the sense of relief when everything’s turned out just right.

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

I solicit a lot of poems for BOR. So naturally I will be publishing people I know. Rejection is an unfortunate part of the biz that we all deal with. Many folks who have gotten close with one issue had poem(s) accepted for the next. It’s also helpful that the editors all have different friends and associates. Whereas I might just weep my way through a rejection to someone I adore, another editor might be more objective and helpful.

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 don’t publish my own work. That would be most untoward! At least in the forums I’m involved with. I’m not very good at promoting my own work in general, though I write a ton and publish a goodly number of poems. I just prefer to promote my editorial projects and authors. I’m bashful that way.

Being an editor helps me understand what I can get away with. My new manuscript, which was written all in the past seven months, is a departure from my earlier work in that I am much more myself in the poems, in terms of voice. I’m having fun with the manuscript. Reading so many poems makes me nervy. My natural tendency is to push it.

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?

People send us nice notes! On pretty paper! And we get lots of hugs at AWP. So that makes us feel good. We release the issue at the conference so people can pick it up in person and we can hopefully dazzle them in person.

Every issue of BOR creates its own narrative. It’s a composite of the tone of the poems in the magazine, and the tone of the editors. Some issues are bound to be funnier than others. BOR #1 had a theme of religion throughout it, for no apparent reason. It was beyond our control. We choose the poems that choose us. When we put them together, sometimes they fight, and sometimes they disappear behind the garage for a little while in pairs. Sometimes the other poems watch those poems behind the garage. And sometimes a tornado rolls into town just in time to rock every foundation, and send us somewhere we never thought we’d go.

Mary Biddinger is the author of Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Copper Nickel, diode, Gulf Coast, The Laurel Review, North American Review, Passages North, Third Coast, and many other journals. She is the editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, co-editor-in-chief of Barn Owl Review, and director of the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She blogs at The Word Cage and teaches at the University of Akron.


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.
Kate Benedict, editor of Umbrella.
Christine Klocek-Lim, editor of Autumn Sky Poetry.
Lindsay Walker, poetry editor of Juked.

Coming up next (once a week on Tuesdays):

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.

7 thoughts on “Ten Questions for Poetry Editors – Mary Biddinger”

  1. I thought Mary Biddinger’s responses to the questions were very insightful and genuine–she actually cares about being an editor. I love the idea that she has nothing but good will for a writer and her poems. That’s really a refreshing idea, especially because many editors seem so jaded.

  2. Now, a rejection note from MB would really take the edge of the dumping. Patience, optimism, humour, flexibility – all front-runner qualifications for good editing. Off to check out Barn owl Review right now…

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