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Journal, Day Two

By Jeff Shotts

I receive hate mail. Not frequently, but enough to register it and to register the disappointment—and sometimes the anger—poets feel in response to receiving a rejection letter. But receiving hate mail is not nearly as difficult, I find, as writing the rejection letter itself. Some writers seem to hold the notion that editors take pleasure in rejecting writers. The language of the process—submission—is, of course, problematic, as it conjures the image of writers bowing down, literally submitting, surrendering their works to the publishing gods. But almost every editor I’ve spoken to has said the least favorite part about the job is turning down writers. (Or perhaps the second least favorite thing, right after not having enough time to read published books outside of stacks of manuscripts.)

The brutal facts: Graywolf Press receives about 2,000-2,500 poetry submissions annually and publishes ten poetry collections per year. This means we accept less than half of one percent of the submissions that come in.

We select our books, then, by a variety of criteria. Graywolf does have a stable of writers whose works and careers we continue to support, and we consider that with the quality of new works those writers send in. Those situations aside, how does a manuscript stand out enough to get serious consideration? There are three primary criteria I consider when weighing submissions:

1. Are the poet’s language and style deployed in a meaningful and original way?
2. Is the manuscript about something?
3. Is the manuscript really a book?

These are all three deeply interrelated, and it’s difficult to take one apart from the others. But to elaborate:

First, the language and style of the submitted poetry has to be compelling, and has to be deployed in a way or form that enhances the meaning of the overall project. This is to say there must be some reason the writer chose to write this particular work as poetry, and in this particular mode, and those reasons should be in some way discernible by the reader. An example from a different but related genre: The Da Vinci Code was written as a novel, but it’s clear from even a page or two that its true form is Hollywood film; despite all its success, it fails as literature in part because it was written in the wrong form. Or to go back to poetry and to use a more artful example, I think of the way Albert Goldbarth’s long, rollicking poems made of long, rollicking lines are the right poetic form—with similarities to Whitman’s strategies—to take in his universe of careening subjects, histories, and allusions. Regardless of what that form or style may be, the poet needs to find the right way of writing to complement what the work is about.

Which leads me, secondly, to inquire if a manuscript of poetry is confronting something—call it subject matter, call it theme: a singular focus, or a set of issues that the poetry is describing or grappling with. The manuscript needs to be about something, even something ephemeral, abstract, or glancing. I think of Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely as a terrific example of a book unflinching in its confrontation with TV non-reality and our over-medicated culture. Or the way Fanny Howe’s On the Ground, even for all its gaps and associative logic, relentlessly confronts spirituality and war. It surprises me how many manuscripts are seemingly written around something rather than about it, or they self-consciously avoid subject matter altogether.

And third, does the manuscript use what it’s about and its deployment of language to create a satisfying, cohesive book? It used to be more the case that poetry books were assemblies of what a poet had written in a given few years: Prufrock and Other Observations. I think readers now are accustomed to reading an individual book as a discreet project, a work that attempts to take the reader across an arc from the first poem to the last. Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris is a deliberately constructed and ordered collection, for example, and each poem is in its meant place. In a more open-ended mode, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life is a collection that is a project unto itself. Or, to use another example, Nick Flynn’s Blind Huber becomes a sequence about both the research into bees and, simultaneously, the internal dissolution of the hive. It makes a book, and we’re meant to read the work as a book.

It takes a great deal of risk on the poet’s part, it seems to me, to dare sounding a unique register in language and to dare writing about something dear or important. I don’t mean to offer the brutal numbers above to frighten writers, but rather to challenge them: with the numbers stacked against you anyway, why not risk everything—if not in life, then on the page? Why not risk ambition in the writing? In its perhaps backhanded way—the likelihood of rejection creates a kind of creative freedom.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, May 9th, 2006 by Jeff Shotts.