Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day One
Poets who have just started submitting their work to magazines are often tortured by the big questions. White envelope or tan? Flag stamps or commemoratives? Fold the paper in half or in thirds? Should I tell the editor how much I love to ski or just give the ages of my children?
Against that background, we are very pleased to present the transcript of our recent telephone interview with one of the legends of literary publishing, Ichabod “Pat” Stazer, long-time poetry editor of The Journal of All Thought, who agreed to provide some insights into the workings of the editorial process.
RH: Good morning, sir. How are things at the Baltimore School of Dentistry?
IS: Beats me. We’re not there anymore.
RH: You’ve moved again?
IS: Yes, we’re now at the Staten Island College of Refrigeration Studies, as part of their new MFA program.
RH: Isn’t this your ninth move in 11 years?
IS: Eleventh move in nine years, actually, but this is a very exciting new program and we’re thrilled to be part of it. The offer was irresistible—no classes until 2011, 72 student interns, unlimited photocopying, a 20 percent discount at Denny’s, good every day but Sunday—I could go on.
RH: It sounds as though the program has come together very fast, indeed. What about faculty?
IS: Ah, wonderful people—Carl Sandburg, Sara Teasdale, William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Guest, Adelaide Crapsey—
RH: Excuse me, but aren’t they all dead?
IS: Oh, I don’t mean the originals. These names have all been franchised. When you look at the ads for summer workshops in Poets & Writers magazine and see the same 20 names listed everywhere from Palo Alto to Prague, you don’t think they’re all the originals, do you?
RH: I’ve been naïve, I guess. I hope the magazine will thrive in its new surroundings. I wonder if you would be willing to give us some insights into your guiding editorial philosophy, the artistic convictions that drive the magazine forward even during periods of heavy packing and unpacking?
IS: Oh, sure, that’s easy. About three times a year, we sit down and write fawning letters to the 10 most famous poets named John, begging them to send us any scrap or scribble that will allow us to use their picture on the cover. We throw in an occasional Ann or Alice. So far, so good.
RH: But what about the unsolicited manuscripts?
IS: What the hell are they?
RH: You know, the poems from not yet discovered new writers, bursting with talent and fresh thinking, eager to lead poetry in vibrant new directions and take their place as leaders of tomorrow’s literary cosmos.
IS: Oh, yeah, that crap. All those chubby envelopes. We use to steam the stamps off and use the rest to stuff mattresses.
RH: You can’t be serious!
IS: Well, not entirely. People started mailing small dead animals to us, so we finally realized we had to pay some attention to them. For instance, we had an office competition to see who could hold an envelope of poems the longest without actually losing it.
RH: What was the record?
IS: Four and a half years. We had a nice note from the guy’s widow.
RH: But what about reading them?
IS: Come on, do you think I have nothing but time? Actually, we came up with an alternative that we’re pretty proud of.
RH: An alternative to reading?
IS: Exactly. We’ve developed a set of guidelines that allows us to make judgments based on criteria other than the manuscripts. That way, we can reject things quickly and just send them right to the To Be Aged drawer.
RH: Like what?
IS: Well, there’s a long list. A return label with a smiley face—automatic rejection. An SASE on which the writer addresses himself as Mr. Anything written in calligraphy. Anything printed out in imitation calligraphy. A cover letterhead with daisies on it or teddy bears or the name of their law firm. A cover letter which says John Doe, Professional Writer. A six-line poem that says “approximately 47 words” in the upper right-hand corner. A faint photocopy listing the 500 unspeakably awful magazines the writer has appeared in since 2005. An offer to send a huge book manuscript which we could publish and the author would give us 20 percent of the proceeds. An ungrammatical letter of praise from a teacher we never heard of. Anything from South Florida—
RH: Whoa, that’s harsh! Anything from South Florida?
IS: Yeah, you can have your prejudices. I’m entitled to mine. Life and publishing ain’t fair.
RH: Is that the whole list?
IS: Enough to give you the flavor. We get new ideas all the time. Like anything sent certified mail or FedEx. Any envelope with more than a pound of Scotch tape.
RH: Doctor, I must say this is all very disillusioning to me, not at all what I expected. Don’t you have any encouraging advice for all those poets out there?
IS: You mean besides finishing up that accounting degree? Okay. You’d better really be thrilled just to be writing poems because nobody’s gonna give you nothin’ and, in a world almost entirely populated by people with MFA degrees, the odds are you ain’t gonna get the book, the job, the respect or more than 62 dollars a year. The Journal of All Thought is merely the first stile to jump over. It gets worse. (You’ll notice I’m using vernacular, babe, to show I’m really a friend of the people.)
RH: I’ve got just a few dozen more questions.
IS: Sorry, kid. It’s Mexican Fiesta Day at Denny’s and I want to get my regular table. That really pumps you up, you know, having a regular table.