Welcome back to POEMHACK! I welcome submissions by readers, especially of poems that have been previously rejected for publication. Check the bottom of the post for details, and check the archive for previous installments.
Original Poet writes:
I only recently gotten the publishing bug but so far I have gotten no where. I am a horrible judge of my own work. Here is a poem that I feel is strong and representative of my work. I have never been to a workshop nor did I graduate college. I would greatly appreciate any help you could give me.
The poem surprises in at least a few ways.
Narratively, the discovery of the speaker’s wife’s rape is more surprising than the rape itself, which is a totally sad commentary on the world itself. And the speaker’s voice has two major surprises: “Some will stop here” and “It is my sincere/ hope that nothing bad…” “Some will stop here” is commentary on the telling of the story, a telling that is otherwise pretty straight-ahead. “It is my sincere/ hope” is surprising because it does seem like the speaker’s sincere hope, and that such generosity of spirit also exists in the world of that fucking rapist, well.
Many narrative poems are easy to call from the first few lines, like most TV shows are easy to call during the first commercial break. In this case, it’s not a narrative twist that surprises and rewards, but an emotional one.
Craft-wise, everything’s pretty solid.
The thinking behind most of the line and stanza divisions is pretty clear – most lines have at least two ideas working in them, and besides the third and fourth stanzas, each stanza break is a real cut. Stanzas are being used as units of thought, rather than textured ornament, and give the narrative a cinematic feel.
The slow pacing of the poem is working great; the subject matter generates plenty of tension, and that we don’t rip right through it gives the complexity of the speaker’s voice time to really bloom.
What doesn’t work
While there are going to be editors that have a fundamental problem with the subject matter – some people won’t want to hear about it in the first place, some people won’t want to hear about it from a dude – the only potentially problematic thing to my ear is the line “(I thought she was just being a princess.)” Maybe it’s the childish connotation of “princess,” but this line makes it seem initially like the speaker kind of mythologizes, or even mistrusts his wife. This is not the case as the poem goes on – the speaker’s protectiveness is not born from the male gaze, but from the wife’s real need of protection – but I don’t see a compelling reason for the poem to be doing this work, plus there’s probably more interesting ways to do it.
I revised this poem to streamline it, but I’m not convinced shagginess is why it isn’t getting published. More on this in a second.
I reorganized the poem to have a simpler, linear movement, and took out some of the flavor text. I wanted to keep some of the slowness of the original, so I added some punctuation, a few line breaks, and the section breaks between stanzas. The only addition of mine I’m real proud of is the repetition of “Some will stop here” and quoting the wife saying “Stop” while describing her to the rapist. The original instance of the line was novel and foreboding, and now I think it gets its payoff.
But really, there’s a bunch of journals that would have taken the original poem. It’s not flashy, it’s a little shaggy, but there’s a real payoff. The complexity of the situation the speaker is in – thinking of the wife, talking to the rapist – and his feelings therein are straight-up compelling. The task this poem has for the poet is to not get in the way of it.
I followed up with the Original Poet:
[…] How many times have you sent this poem out? Where did you send it?
What do you write in your cover letters?
One problem I think I’m having is finding a journal that is a good fit for me. I have a long list of journals, but no real information on them. This particular poem has been sent out four or five times with no bites.
I have been kind of disorganized in my efforts; I will admit.
My cover letter is a brief introduction describing myself as an unpublished poet and admitting my lack of formal training.
So there’s two things:
- the difficulty of finding a non-academic access point into a tradition closely yoked to academia
- that sounds like a terrible cover letter
How to get in the know about journals
While the conventional wisdom is true, there is no substitute for reading an issue or two of a journal to find out what its tastes are, reading a journal with that purpose in mind is not giving the work fair due. There’s few easier ways to learn about what’s happening in poetry and where you yourself fit in it than by reading journals just to explore – not when you’ve got a submission packet already chambered – and with so many great online journals, none freer.
Ditto, basically, going to readings. And readings have the added benefit of introducing you to other poets who know all about this kind of stuff, and often actually meeting editors, publishers, etc.
That cover letter has NO swag
The only thing worse than a cover letter that over-promises is a cover letter that apologizes. No editor wants to spend their time reading poems that the poet doesn’t seem to think are worthwhile. Now, this is not to say you should include a paragraph re: how great you are and how genius your poems, but there’s a story in Chuang-zhu:
An emperor wants his portrait done, so he summons all the painters in the land to find the guy to give the honor to. Hundreds of painters show up and queue in a line so long it stretches outside the palace. All preening, stink-eyeing each other, clutching their best work, practicing what they’ll say. And one painter walks into the palace, goes up into the chambers, unpacks his stuff, and goes to sleep. When his servants inform the king what this painter has done, he tells them to send all the other painters away. He has found his artist.
I asked a couple editor friends about what they look for in cover letters, and their own theories on them. Rob MacDonald of the stellar journal Sixth Finch (srsly: so fresh, so clean, so quality) shares my opinion that cover letters should be “short and sweet.” Rob says, “I pay nearly no attention to cover letters. If a submission comes in with a note that says, ‘Hope you enjoy these,’ that’s good enough for me.” I usually greet the editors, list my poems, include a short bio, and thank them for their time.
But on the other side of things, I do recall times editing for this or that journal that a cover letter would really piss me off. I do think they have an effect, and Michelle Sinsky of Matter wrote back a deconstruction of cover letter tropes that, as far as I’ve seen, is the final word on cover letters to literary journals. Check it out HERE.
If you’d like me to take a look at a poem of yours that’s getting no love but you don’t know why, please send it to me (email@example.com) with the subject “POEMHACK”. By doing so you acknowledge that it’s your own unpublished work, that you give me the right to post it here and do whatever I like to it, and that I am just a dude talking about one poem of yours, not your entire career or potential as a poet! Any poems I choose to write about will be posted anonymously, but feel free to out yourself in the comments.