Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Time to Hula!
Okay, so you've made peace with the rejection slip, you've studied very closely the magazines you want to be published in, and you now have great respect for The Editors and their thankless toil. You can write a cover letter that is respectful and brief, but . . . without the perfect pink hula skirt, your poems are never getting out of purgatory and into publication heaven.
What can you do to increase your chances of kaholo-stepping your editor into submission?
1. Subject Matter. John Poch, editor at 32 Poems, suggests avoiding tired subjects, such as grandmothers, the beloved, the view from your window, the act of writing a poem, etc. He has a point. Even with my limited experience as an editor, my brain glazes over when I come upon yet another poem about (drum roll) getting older. HOWEVER. Don't fall into the trap of thinking any subject (even the most tired) is off limits. Instead, strive to find fresh ways to approach tired subjects. James Hoch, who visited my poetry class at Bellevue College last winter, provided my students with some expert advice in this department. He said it's okay to begin a poem in a very familiar place--a couple having an argument in their kitchen, say. But then the poem needs to take an unexpected turn. In his example, the couple suddenly began to float around the kitchen. This sudden weightlessness definitely helped get at least one editor's attention.
2. Voice/Persona. I am sure you are just as interesting as can be in real life, but let me share a little secret: nobody wants to read a poem about "you." They want a heightened you, an exaggerated you, or they want . . . well . . . not exactly you, but a funnier or wackier or more pathetic you. In other words, don't be yourself in your poems. I know, I know--in real life "just be yourself" is all you ever hear. But when it comes to artistic expression, it's better to be someone kinda like you but not quite. Be that someone else the best you can be, in the voice that someone would speak in. Then, belt it out full blast!
3. Line breaks. Read Denise Levertov's "On the Function of the Line." Study the line breaks of every poem you love. Then carefully consider each of your line breaks. Are you heightening suspense? Ending a line on an article (usually not a good idea, unless you're Herbert)? Calling attention to a word you didn't mean to call attention to? Making a joke you didn't meant to make?
4. Syntax. If you're writing convoluted sentences, do you have a good reason for doing that? If you're going gang-busters with short, choppy sentences, is your choppiness appropriate for the subject matter? Make sure your sentence structure makes sense, is interesting, and doesn't change course mid-stream unless you have a good reason for doing so.
5. Use the dictionary. Spelling, definitions, etymologies: all of these deserve checking.
6. Polish, polish, polish. Remember that musical number in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her entourage get all guzzied up before the big trip to meet The Wizard (I love the part where Dorothy asks "Can you even dye my eyes to match my gown?")? Your poem must endure a similar grooming process. Snip, snip here, snip, snip there, etc. You can't afford to have a hair out of place. Smile for the camera! And don't forget to double check your teeth for poppy seeds. Now off to the merry old land of Oz, but don't forget the . . .
7. Jiffy Lube 23-Point Inspection. Please excuse the mixing of metaphors here, but when you think your poem is done, put it away for a few weeks and let it cool off. Then, bring that sucker out, along with your wrench and oil pan. Check the tire pressure and the rear-differential fluid. Flush that radiator, and change those wiper blades before they scratch your windshield something awful. Finally, vacuum out the crumbs and lint.
8. Before you send it off. Have 2-3 poet friends read it over. Even when you think it's been detailed with a toothbrush, I guarantee one of them will find at least a small error--a word you used twice (and didn't intend to), a missing comma, a title that could be stronger.
9. Consider very carefully where to send it. Which editor(s) will be most receptive to this particular poem or poems? If they are funny poems, which magazines publish humorous poems, or is there a mag you like that's having an upcoming humor issue? Have you written a New Yorker poem, a Ploughshares poem or a Fence poem? It's difficult to know for sure, but do your best to match poems with aesthetics and poetic philosophies (i.e., if a mag's submission guidelines mention how they tend toward experimental work, don't send them your best Petrarchan sonnet).
1o. It's hula time! There's no guarantee the editors are going to go wild for your coconut tree motion, but at least when the poems come back to you with that little measly slip of paper, you know you've definitely, definitely done all you could possibly do to make that little engine purr. Here's a final tip from the mouth of Linda Bierds: when your poems come back, have an envelope already addressed and stamped for the next place you're sending them. Repeat till you get what you're after.