No Cleverness, No Hiding: Five Tips for Submitting to Lit Journals

by Courtney Spohn

I’m a new poetry editor at Nimrod, and it’s been a pleasure to read submissions because I feel connected to each writer’s work and the community at large. As a writer, I know what it feels like when my work is rejected and how it feels to read a published piece and believe my writing is better. These are tight, icky feelings! So recommending a poem for publication is something I take seriously and with an eye toward the subjective nature of art. As a reader, I find myself revisiting a few similar reactions to submissions. I want to share my opinions below with the hope that they support any writer who feels alone and unheard.

 

  • Submit what, where, and when you want to be published. I would like to address the work that hasn’t been submitted for publication—the poems writers would like to see published, but that they hold back for a variety of reasons, including a debilitating sense of perfection or worthiness. I believe there is a forum for nearly everything a writer wants to be published. As to when to publish, I think writers need to examine their motivation for seeking publication and then see if the piece they want to publish aligns with that motivation. For example, if I want acclaim, but I have a poem that was written for just one person, then I’m doing a disservice when I submit it for publication. When I have a poem that I love and I want others to read, and the poem is telling me it’s ready, then there’s alignment when I send it out in the world. I think, more often than not, the work itself tells writers if it is for others to read or not. When a piece is ready to be published, send it out. Let go of self-censorship and self–criticism! I have been writing with a friend for over a decade, and recently she has developed dementia. We re-read her poems and she cannot believe how good they are; years ago, she thought they were bad poems. “Did I write that?” she asks. And the poems are scattered in her apartment and not in general circulation. Let yourself shine in this moment—not some imagined future.
  • Stop hiding behind your wit, intellect, and inside jokes. I think many writers use writing as a primary form of expression—and we tend to write better than others. Often, we are accustomed to being misunderstood, so when we write something, it can feel like doing a magic trick. Look what I can do, you ordinary soul! It’s a metaphor! So when we write from our ego, we know we can create something that will impress others. To me, a poem that’s trying to impress will always be secondary to a poem that isn’t, even if the poem that isn’t trying to impress is the more ordinary poem. Instead of trying to impress, I want to see that same writer push further—even if the writing gets ugly—to find what’s really there. Recently I’ve had to tell myself to act like everyone is as intelligent and funny as I am—this means I can’t be impressive because others will already be a step ahead of me. I can’t hide, either, because then they’ll be a block ahead of me. To keep up, I need to say what I mean. I want all poets to do this. Of course, like Emily Dickinson says, we can “tell it slant.” I encourage writers not to hide behind shorthand or jokes that only make sense to them. Maybe another way to say “don’t be clever” is to say “start believing that you are being seen and heard.” If you only had one minute to say your point, can you find that point in your poem? And would a (funny, intelligent) stranger understand you?
  • Experiment with form. Sometimes it feels like writers have more to say about their subject than they let themselves say. My hunch is this comes from a sense of trying to create a poem that looks like a poem—a type of control. It also feels a little safer to submit a poem than to submit ten pages from your journal about the same topic. The problem with a poem that feels like it is begging to be larger is that I either don’t understand what the writer’s real take is or I, again, think the writer is hiding. Feel the freedom to write about your topic in whatever form it takes to express your feeling and beliefs. If your point could be made in an essay or speech, say it there. Use the poem because you need its form and value the import of every word and punctuation mark. Consider whether or not you’re using sensory imagery to ground your point. If not, then you might have a good essay on your hands. Or, better, you could use multiple genres, each to express different facets of your point. Just make sure you keep writing until you know you have stated your full point and its associated emotions in at least one place.
  • Go there with religion and politics, but don’t make me agree or disagree with you. It’s common experience to reject religious and political beliefs we grew up with, and I think it’s exciting terrain to explore because it places writers on the edge of what we believe. What’s accepted or rejected in the writer’s understanding of the world? Go there! And go there with anger, if needed, but don’t assume that you are either alone or in community with your reader. What is the experience of anger like for you? What strikes you as out-of-touch or hypocritical and what does that say about you? I might completely agree with a writer’s politics or spirituality, but I don’t like feeling divided in a poem or that I’m picking sides with wide swaths of people who agree or disagree about something. Tell me what it’s like for you, and assume that I will understand and be on your side, even if we disagree. Hold out a larger container for yourself and others that allows everyone’s viewpoints while still staying true to yours. When it comes to politics, there are certain practices that are abhorrent and shocking. Carolyn Forchè’s work with poetry of witness comes to mind here. For example, in “The Colonel,” Forchè provides just the details. There is no question about right and wrong—the details she provides shows us the truth. Here, there is a space to witness and record what’s happening, and that is a type of political commentary. There is also editorializing on what’s happening, as seen in Morgan Parker’s work. In “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD,” Parker provides both the political details of what she’s experiencing and how she feels about it. Both providing and withholding direct opinions on political topics can be appropriate for poetry. I would encourage us to be clear about our intentions and have the courage to ground all commentary in sensory details. Again, trust your message will be communicated. Then take the time to see what you’ve created and where you can, again, assume you have an intelligent audience. What can you give them that communicates your anger or beliefs without forcing them to agree with your specific viewpoint? I think this is along the lines of being so personal that we bring to light a universal.
  • Don’t use “you” unless you are very, very good at it (and ignore everything I’m doing in this post). I find myself getting uncomfortable with the use of “you” in a poem that refers to the reader (instead of someone the speaker is specifically referring to, like a lover, parent, etc.). I become obstinate and think, “this isn’t my marriage, mother, or fill-in-the-blank.” But I am happy to try on any ideas related to those themes, among others. When a poem is obviously about your experience, I think often it’s best to own it and use “I” or find a way to tie the experience to a third party or the natural world (by that I mean not just nature). Leave you/me out of it! “You don’t know me!” my stubborn self says. There are many exceptions to this rule, of course, and the things that are the hardest to say are sometimes said best through “you.” I would argue that, unless the details of the poem are so specific that there is no possible way the poem is about me, a writer likely shouldn’t use “you.” This connects to the assumption that your audience is intelligent and full of humor; I know what a lot of experiences have felt like for me. What were they like for you? I will follow the poem through the use of imagery and emotion and not because I’ve been named as “you.” Of course, if it’s obvious “you” is the addressee of the poem, and a specific person, then use it. Did I need to tell you that?

 

There are always exceptions to the things I’ve said here, and there’s almost nothing worse than unsolicited writing advice. I simply would encourage the intelligent and humorous writers among us to consider where they might be hiding and to pull away those curtains. Connect your insights to the world instead of to abstract ideas. Eliminate clever turns of phrase. Don’t rest on easy insights. Don’t assume others aren’t noticing the things you’re noticing. Name experiences that are yours—don’t graft them on an unknown reader. Tell us what you have to say as if time is running out and you won’t get it back. And tell us what you know and feel and have experienced as if it matters, because it does matter. As Bong Joon-ho said during an Oscar speech, quoting Martin Scorsese, “[t]he most personal is the most creative.” Be the most creative

Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. With Sheila e. Black, she has a poem published in Otoliths. She is a life coach and blogger at courtneyspohn.com.

A Librarian’s Guide to Recommending Books

by Rebecca Harrison

One of the many hats I wear as a public librarian is that of readers’ advisor. Put simply, a readers’ advisor is someone who suggests books to another person—a reading matchmaker of sorts. At first blush, readers’ advisory sounds pretty easy—fun, even. After all, my mental bookcase is jam-packed with beloved titles, acquired over decades of voracious reading. What could be simpler than reaching into my mind and pulling out one of those wonderful books and offering it to a patron?

Unfortunately, this is where a lot of readers’ advisors go astray. Recommending books is not a one size fits all operation. What I love about a book (the prose! the Victorian setting! the empowered female lead!) might completely turn you off. An individual’s reading habits are so deeply personal, and particular, and sometimes nonsensical, that selecting books for a stranger is significantly more challenging than it sounds. If you happen to find yourself receiving requests for book recommendations from your friends or family, I hope this blog post will help you navigate those conversations as gracefully as possible.

When faced with a reader whose tastes differ wildly from my own, I reach into my librarian’s bag of tricks and get to work, starting with the readers’ advisory interview, which, at its heart, is just a conversation about books. It’s also an opportunity for me, the librarian, to actively listen while someone describes the last book they really dug, and what exactly they dug about it.

I teach classes on readers’ advisory to other library staff, and one thing I emphasize is the importance of being completely free of judgment when someone is describing their reading tastes. There truly is a reader for every book, and it’s not up to me—or anyone else—to deem someone’s favorite book less than. I like to use Twilight as an example. For a long time, to admit to liking Twilight was treated as akin to committing serial murder. At my previous library job in Arkansas, I recall staff wagging their heads over the purple prose, the milquetoast heroine, the nonexistent plot. Yet, despite its flaws, Twilight was a bona fide phenomenon. Whether you loved it or hated it, you can’t deny that it resonated with millions of people. As I mentioned before, reading habits are deeply personal, so insulting someone’s favorite book is like insulting their mother. Just don’t do it.

Nancy Pearl, librarian and patron saint of readers’ advisory, developed a concept called the “Four Doors to Reading.” In brief, she posits that readers “fall in love with books” for one of four reasons:

  1. Story—the plot. The sequence of events that unfold on the page. Plot-centric books are often described as “page-turners” or “unputdownable.” We read these books to find out what happens next.
  2. Character—the individuals who dwell inside the pages of a book. The heroine, the villain, the lovable sidekick. If you’ve ever described a character as your “book boyfriend,” character might be your key to falling for a book.
  3. Setting—the world you crawl into when you open the book. Setting-centric books are typified by their intricate worldbuilding. They transport you to another place or time, real or imaginary. We read these books to lose ourselves in another world.
  4. Language—the words used to bring the story, characters, and setting to life. We read these books to savor the prose—the exquisite turns of phrase, the expert dialogue.

There’s a lot more to say on this subject, of course, but identifying a person’s primary “doorway to reading” is a great first step toward figuring out what kind of books they might enjoy.

A final note: I will dare to presume that many of the writers who frequent this blog are also readers, so if you would like a trained readers’ advisor to develop a list of reading suggestions for you, I encourage you to use Tulsa City-County Library’s Your Next Great Read service. Caveat: you must be an active TCCL cardholder to use this service.

Happy reading (and advising!)!

Rebecca Harrison is the manager of Adult Services at the Central Library in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When she’s not at the library, you may find her writing, reading, or marveling over how cute her cats are.

Alive in a Way We Recognize as Life: Rebecca Pelky’s HORIZON OF THE DOG WOMAN

by Eric Morris-Pusey

It’s odd that we so often think of “nature poetry,” the kind of poetry that deals with the land, as distinct from poetry of the body. The human body, after all, is the bit of nature with which we’re most intimately familiar.

Rebecca Pelky’s debut, Horizon of the Dog Woman, breaks down this dichotomy: it is a collection of both nature poems and body poems, of poems that center the ways in which the body and the natural world reflect and shape one another. The land and the body share the same love and joy, bear the same scars.

This book often revels in natural beauty, its speakers drawing strength and succor from the natural world, but it also refuses to forget or obfuscate the awful history of the United States’ land, product of theft and genocide, and the ways in which that history ripples into the present. This history is not an abstraction that exists only in the past, but a physical and emotional presence in both land and body.

In “Eat the Weed, the Stinking Rose,” a description of the ways in which water transforms the land, “strok[ing] it to furrows” and allowing plants to flourish, soon gives way to more troubling sights: “the boxy spiral of a pit mine, in the scars / of what’s been found, the pressure that swells / under skins.” Even in these scars, these marks of abuse and misuse, there is life and beauty—but not without violence and exploitation. The poem ends with the resonant, contradictory image of a wild onion: “the bulb tender, sweet. Not so the shoot, / . . . its pepper was reckless, the toughness of fibers I chewed and chewed.”

These poems do not oversimplify. They do not stop at saying there is beauty despite history or the difficulty of life; rather, they show the world as it is: a tangled mess that is sometimes terrible, sometimes wonderful, and usually an uncomfortable mixture of both.

In “For Women Who Don’t Want Children,” Pelky’s speaker feels guilt at “distance / between myself and a vision of little hands / curled in the cup of my hips” but also points to the way we marvel at anything “single in nature.” The feelings are further complicated by an intense juxtaposition: is the speaker “one red wildflower in spring runoff” or “Spotted Elk dead in the snow”? These poems don’t provide any easy answers, any happily-ever-afters, and are far more honest for it.

The book engages with another sort of history, too: that of the academy, of definitions and categorizations, of the literary canon. The book opens with an extensive set of epigraphs that do a wonderful job of setting the collection’s tone without overshadowing the poems themselves: a set of dictionary definitions for the words “dog” and “horizon,” dealing academically and matter-of-factly with their connotations and denotations, is accompanied by an excerpt from anthropologist Jenny James’s “The Dog Tribe.” These epigraphs illustrate the same complexity we find throughout the book.

The first definition given for dog simply “denot[es] a person or thing (with varying degrees of contempt or admiration),” evoking everything from what’s up, dog? to working doggedly to she’s a dog to Joe Biden’s latest incomprehensible attack on a woman who asked him a question. The second hits more directly—“an unattractive woman or girl.” The third definition provides an astronomical context for dog, taking us to the stars, and the excerpt from James discusses the dog as a religious archetype associated with “maternal origin, the reconciliation of opposites, and the bond between humanity and nature.”

So many distinct and often self-contradictory or self-complicating meanings of the word dog provide the perfect doorway into this collection, a book in which Pelky constantly uses images and ideas to represent and evoke more than one thing—and the idea of “reconciliation of opposites” is one of this collection’s primary driving forces.

The book takes on the history of literature more directly, too, challenging the dominant (read: white and masculine) view of this history with poems like “Let’s Ask Leda about Consent” and “Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Talks Back.” These pieces further tie together the various threads that make up Horizon of the Dog Woman: The personal reflections and the meditations on history and the natural world are given further context within a literature that has too often been complicit in systems of power that erase women and indigenous people and wreak ecological havoc.

In writing about a wide array of subjects and the webs of connection among them, Pelky never ignores craft: these poems are not only precise in their language and imagery, but do wonderful things with sound as well, particularly alliteration and consonance: “I’ll grow like sorghum, on drought / and tempered shit, baked and honeyed / to the hummingbird god. I’ll spread” (“Flyblown”). Each of the poems has a natural flow, a fluidity of language, that makes it feel full and rewards re-reading and reading aloud. At the same time, they do not feel overwrought: these poems are both conversational and poetic, never sacrificing one for the other.

These various threads—of land and body, definition and history, craft and subject—come together as vibrant and vital, the collection mirroring the strata of a shoreline Pelky both describes and reimagines in “Fossils,” truly “alive in a way we recognize as life.” History and the present, the physical landscape and the inner one are collided and combined in a kaleidoscopic crush, each one shown in greater clarity because of the ways it is tied to the others.

Horizon of the Dog Woman is available now from Saint Julian Press. Rebecca Pelky will read at the collection’s AWP offsite launch at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio on Wednesday, March 4th.

Eric Morris-Pusey’s poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Noble-Gas Qtrly, and Driftwood Press, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. He lives across from a vacant lot in Columbia, Missouri, with his partner, poet Grace Gardiner.

Author photo from Saint Julian Press.