Saturday, April 3, 2010

Poetry Editors Can Be Mean

Poetry editors are wonderful people, even the ones who are annoying or mistaken. They put in a lot of time and intend the best (usually). Sometimes, however, they can be more brutal than helpful, without realizing it.

I recently submitted to a journal that has been around awhile, with a team of editors led by one central figure, who (he announces in his staff notes) does most of the work himself, spending “hours” each day on his computer. He has spent fifteen years teaching poetry, he says. Obviously he is dedicated and immersed.

I decided to be humble before this august personage, and omitted any mention of my 400 publications in my bio. The bio I sent him ran like this:

“I teach environmental ethics for the University of Maine. Much of my writing is done in a hut in a spruce forest. If a bear charges you, stand your ground. It's probably a bluff. If a moose charges, run!”

I guess I set myself up to be treated like a greenhorn, and boy did I get it! The same night I submitted, I received a rejection back from this diligent editor, along with significant personalized commentary:

“These seem like kaleidoscopic images, the pieces tumbled out and disassembled. The focus in each poem is lost in trying to reassemble the piece into a coherent entity. You may be playing with form too much, and typographical gimmickry which distracts the reader from ‘getting it.’ Unity is important, images that resound well together and a theme that coheres. I would suggest reading a lot of poetry that speaks personally to the kind of poetry you want to write -- and emulate them. What you sent, I can't print as they are. So, good studying.”

It might be that I sent a particularly bad batch of poems; or, more likely the editor and I have different preferences. What I want to get at is this: editors are sometimes wrong when they give advice, and poets who don’t remember this, or are too sensitive, end up getting hurt.

I am somewhat comfortable with my literary voice, and have been rejected and dejected plenty. Enough to develop some resistance--though I'm still bothered to hell by harsh criticism. Can you tell ;). I think it's my defense mechanism.

A more vulnerable poet who gets a vocal rejection might be wounded and dissuaded from following her heart and listening to her own inner muse. Not good!

So remember: editors are not gods, though sometimes they act as supercilious. Take their decrees with a grain of salt.

Also, what you say in your cover will often influence how you are perceived and treated. That's just basic psychology. If you come across as a newbie or a supplicant, you might get a condescending lecture. Some people seem to like getting a condescending lecture; but for the rest of us, it’s a chance to grow and move on.



  1. i am laughing too hard right now, i better stop. not good. this is one of my fave rejection letters of yours to date- since the editor was so pompous (see, i am laughing at him, not you). i would never, ever, give a critique of my students' work like that - so negative and soul-biting. your accomplishments are many. he may regret that rejection some day. for you though, it made an excellent blog post. it is a darn good thing that you are seasoned enough, and have toughened up enough over the years, to take it with a grain of salt. it's the same for visual artists.

  2. You're the best teacher I know, so I will defer to your opinion--which I happen to absolutely agree with!


  3. It's funny that you post this, because I completely agree (even though I am the editor of Yes, Poetry), I feel like writers, not just editors, can let their biases get in the way of an objective reading of a poem. Of course, it is hard to leave out bias completely, but I think the position of power often gets the better of people at times.

    I sometimes have issue with the personalized rejection letter. On one hand, it can be immensely useful, since a writer of any experience can always improve, but I tend to feel that a personalized letter is often not that helpful. Most of the time, I think it can be discouraging to a writer, so I tend to prefer sending out a less personal rejection letter, since I acknowledge that I have preferences; it isn't personal if I reject a piece.

    That being said, as a writer myself, I think it's also important to realize not everyone will love your work. So it's a sticky subject for me, but I do think editors can be unnecessarily abrasive, as in this case.

  4. Joanna,

    Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog! As an editor, your input is especially valuable.

    A Big Hoot of Happiness To You!