Turning over a new leaf

I’ve been done with most of my responsibilities since the 15th, but it’s taken me 5 days to recover and get back to business on here. We approved the final bluelines for The Pinch on the 15th, and it’ll be in stores around the country and in your mailboxes by mid-February.

Since The Pinch‘s Managing Editor position only lasts a semester, I am done, and I feel some sadness about that. It’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. I have learned so much about managing, editing, and writing, as well as submitting. I hope every writer has the chance, at some point, to work or read for a literary journal, and that EVERY potential MFA student chooses a school where they have a chance to work for a literary journal. It’s truly invaluable experience.

I’ve written here a lot about what I’ve learned about the submission process, but I’ll add some things:

-The Pinch receives a wealth of good poetry in its slush pile. Great poetry to choose from more often than not. Thus, poets really have the short end of the stick. A poem needs to really jump out to stand apart from the mass of good poetry we already get. I’m not necessarily talking about having an experimental form, but when an editor reads through tons and tons of submissions (and our genre editors definitely do), the poem needs to really hit him or her in the face with its interesting imagery, language, etc.  I imagine it’s like this for most journals that publish poetry, thus poets really have an uphill battle when it comes to getting published. The Pinch publishes a wide breadth of poetry, from form poems (we would love to publish more form poems, but form is hard, and most of the form poems we see either don’t make the form covert OR the poem’s just not interesting on its own) to more experimental poems. We publish maybe one very short poem with really sparse lines per issue, if that. Short, sparse poems usually seem too boiled down, and that’s not usually what we want. We accepted four prose poems for our Spring 2012 issue.

-We receive a lot of not-so-great fiction. It’s edgy, but doesn’t have any depth (weird, gratuitous sex for no other reason, for example). It’s a bathtub story (as in, a character is in a single, confined space for the entirety of the story and has little interaction with the outside world), which can sometimes be good, but usually is not. The story doesn’t have a clear sense of place. We don’t know enough about the characters to understand their motivations. The premise or situation is common and doesn’t add anything new (girlfriend/boyfriend cheats or wants to cheat). Since we don’t receive a lot of great fiction in the slush pile, we usually get a bulk of the fiction we publish from soliciting other authors, whether well-established or emerging. We solicit authors for all genres, but we wish we got more good fiction in our slush pile to choose from. We want to publish emerging authors.

In 5,000 words or less, we want fiction that has emotional depth, that really brings us into a character’s life for a moment. We want action. We want well-done flashbacks. We want to know these characters. Most people who read for a journal decide by the first or second page whether it will be a piece that they will keep reading. Editors apply this to the work we read because that’s how our readers read stories in our journal. If we aren’t interested or brought in by the first second or page, our readership probably won’t be either. The 6 people who read your submission will read it in its entirety, but if they aren’t interested by the first or second page, you’ve probably already lost ’em. Make your first 1-2 pages engaging and punchy. Get to the chase quickly. Start with some action. Editors don’t have time to follow you through your slow-paced story unless you earn it from the get-go, either with lovely language or good, clear action.

Our creative nonfiction slush pile is always small. Creative nonfiction writers really have the best chance of getting published, at least in our journal and most likely others, because you are competing against so few others. But we don’t get many pieces in our slushpile that we choose to publish. Most of the creative nonfiction I can remember us getting is memoir. Memoir needs to be situated in a larger context. None of us live in a vacuum, even if your mother died or your drug addiction spiraled out of control, you don’t live in a vacuum. You still have this greater world you interact with that SHOULD somehow be included in your piece. We don’t get many personal essays. We particularly like creative nonfiction that pushes at the genre. We published a piece that worked as a poetic interview in the Fall 2011 issue.

-When you send your work out, send out your best. Honestly. This doesn’t mean that you should agonize over a piece ad infinitum, but do a revision, even if it doesn’t seem perfect, at least one last time. Run it through the spellchecker. Have someone read over it for typos, glaring coherency problems. When genre editors read work, they are looking for reasons to reject it. It’s just the nature of our jobs. We read through SO MANY that we have to weed a lot before we finally settle on one we all like. Each piece for The Pinch is read by 6 different people. If one editor doesn’t like a submission, but the other 5 do, it’ll get published. You still want to eliminate silly reasons for your piece to get rejected like horrendous spelling errors, which make most editors twitch in pain. Things like that basically convey that you didn’t care enough to take the time to check over your work before submitting it. This is MOST important in fiction and creative nonfiction submissions.

-Be polite about sending your work. Follow submission guidelines. Nothing irks an editor more than when someone clearly hasn’t read the guidelines. One poet has sent us packets of 40 poems at a time multiple times in a reading period. That’s simply insane and completely disrespectful of us and the hard job we already have to do. We ask for a MAXIMUM of 5 poems at a time so we can give every poem the same level of attention. It’s not fair to anyone if someone rudely sends in 80 million poems. QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY. At The Pinch, the genre editors log all of the hard copy submissions and usually remember names because they’ve been with your work every step of the process (logging, reading, rejecting or accepting, etc.). If you over and over again choose not to follow the guidelines, the editors will notice and start to badmouth you. Your work may be splendid, but you don’t want an editor to dislike you, at any step of the process. Politeness always.

What to Do with Encouraging or Personalized Rejections

When we send out our work and get a bunch of form rejections, it can be really disheartening. Usually an encouraging or personalized rejection can help ease the pain a bit, but, obviously, an acceptance would help it a lot more.

An Encouraging Rejection:

Encouraging rejections are still form letters, but they specifically say something to the effect, “We like your work, but had to pass on this at the moment. Please send us more.” Sometimes these even go so far as to say, “This is not our customary rejection. We hope you’ll keep us in mind in the future.”

Despite the fact that they are still form letters, they are a big deal. An anonymous person liked your work enough to either click the “encouraging rejection” button on the online submission manager or put the encouraging rejection form letter in your SASE.

As a poetry editor, I gave encouraging rejections to people whose work I really enjoyed, but the pieces they submitted simply weren’t there yet. If there was a particular poem I really liked, I’d usually write that on the letter (someone’s HANDWRITING on your rejection is a SUPER big deal) in the hopes that the individual would send more work in like the poem I had liked.

As an editor for a journal run by graduate students, the staff changes every semester. If you get an encouraging rejection, send work in again, quickly, since the person who liked your work in September may not be on the staff in January. Include in your cover letter that you got an encouraging rejection. If someone wrote on your encouraging rejection, think about photocopying it and including it with your submission. Even if the person didn’t write his or her name, a lot of us on the staff know each other’s handwriting, and it can help you get a leg-up since we know who on the staff may have liked your work.

A Personalized Rejection:

Personalized rejections are the apex of rejections. These are when a specific editor sends us a little note like, “Oh-so-close! I enjoyed ‘[insert poem title here]’ especially. Thanks, So-and-so Poetry Editor.” Or, “I really enjoyed ‘[insert poem title here],’ but it didn’t meet our needs presently. Please consider sending more work. So-and-so Poetry Editor.”

While these may not seem like a big deal, THEY ARE THEY ARE THEY ARE. An editor CHOSE to include a special note to make you aware that they liked your work and/or a specific poem and to consider sending them work again.

These are soooo short of a publication that it can be painful. If I sent a personal note to a writer, I was basically saying, “I really wanted to publish this poem, but we didn’t have the space or the other editors didn’t agree with me.” These letters can definitely give a poet a sense of what poems he or she should submit to that journal again. SEND WORK IMMEDIATELY! Especially if you have other work in the docket that is similar to whatever work/poem they happened to like. Also include some left-fielder poems, poems that may be completely different from the poem or work they liked, just for the heck of it. Address your submission to the specific editor and thank them for the encouraging note. Tell them you hope they will like one of the pieces you’ve included. Consider also mentioning that you aren’t sending this work anywhere else (if, of course, that’s what you’re doing). Sending work you only want them to consider is really respectful, especially after you receive an encouraging note from a specific editor. If I took the time to send you a personal note and you took the time to send a submission only we were able to consider, I would definitely take note.

GO OUT AND SUBMIT!

Drafting: “Kennedy”

I have written at least a poem every week for the last fourteen weeks, and that’s pretty amazing. I’ve gotten so used to doing it that even though the rough draft for my thesis is nearly through, I’ve submitted all the poems I need to for my workshop class, and I could be relaxing, I still got up this morning and had an idea for one.

Richard Tillinghast talks about keeping an “avenue for inspiration” in his interview in The Pinch coming out in Spring 2012. If we regularly keep in touch with our own poetry or at least read a little poetry every day, we open up that avenue to get inspired. That’s part of the reason why I schedule writing time for myself. I’m just there, hanging out, and I can either read or write, but I gotta do something related to craft. I find that I’m more inspired to write in these times. I seem to have clearer ideas, and I can get them on the page succinctly.

Today’s draft actually got inspired by my mother. I was born on Thanksgiving and the day of JFK’s assassination, both details that have always amused me. My mother told me last night that the day I was born she was watching replays of JFK’s fateful drive on television since it was the twenty-first anniversary of his death.

I recently read a creative nonfiction piece in Gulf Coast by Lorraine Doran (which is now up on their website! Read it read it!). It begins with describing how the author was born and how her family doctor happened to be the son of William Carlos Williams. It’s a wonderful opening. What writer doesn’t wish they were birthed by William Carlos Williams or his progeny?

It got me thinking about creative nonfiction as a genre. I’ve shied away from it for a long time, choosing fiction and fictionalized poetry instead, but there’s something so evocative and fun in the experimental CNF we published in The Pinch and what others are now publishing.

Because I was already thinking about birth, when my mother told me that little snippet of what she was watching on TV the day I was born, I started thinking about how strange it would be to have a child and then be holding it while watching a president get shot and bob around while his wife panics.

The poem begins:

“Kennedy has been dead twenty-one years.
My mother, a younger semblance of herself,
holds me, a cocoon of pink.”

Robert Lowell has a poem with the line, “These are the tranquilized Fifties and I am forty.”  In that line, he situates himself in a larger world and time period and then makes it personal by relating his own age. I plan on playing in a similar way with this poem. The president being shot is a much larger issue, but it affected so many people personally. My own father told me he knows exactly where he was when he heard, and he was just 9 years old. JFK’s death has shadowed my birthday since I can remember. It’s always been strange to see the commemorations to him and the replay of his fateful drive every year. The important thing about political poetry (and all its forms) that Tillinghast discusses is that it must be personal to be effective; we must find a way to connect on an individual level, so it doesn’t remain in abstract.

What happened on the day you were born? What about it was political or poetic or tragic?

Life after the MFA

It may only be the second week in November, but this semester is nearly over. The Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch is officially full and we send our files off to the printer a week from tomorrow. I’ve got a big chunk of my thesis together and more I know will be going into it soon. I’m also on the third round of edits for the cover letter and project proposal I’m writing for the fellowship I’m applying to.

Overall, things are falling together.

I’ve been hearing more and more about “life after the MFA.” As in, what the heck do you do? James Allen Hall, who I had the pleasure of having breakfast with when he was in Memphis for The Pinch’s Fall 2011 release party, told me it normally takes some people 10 years to publish a book after they graduate and it may or may not be anything close to what they wrote for their thesis. It took him 8 years and everything in his book (Now You’re the Enemy) was new (as in, new after his MFA thesis). Mary Molinary, a graduate from the University of Memphis MFA program, took 9 years. Her manuscript won the 2010 Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse award and is now forthcoming in Spring 2012.

Many recent graduates I know are teaching at the college level. Others are teaching at the K-12 level. Some are getting new degrees in new fields. One amazingly lucky person has already had her book accepted for publication.

Many people have told me that after they graduated, they just stopped writing for a year. All that productivity and trucking along for so long and then a dead stop once they graduated.

Right now, I’m applying for a writing/teaching/editing fellowship. These kinds of things are highly competitive, and I’ve already put a great deal of work into my application.

The thing I’m trying to keep in mind at the moment is that 10 years may seem like a long time, but it’s about dedication. This business is not easy. Publications, jobs, acceptances, etc. are not easy to come by. It’s all about the work, about the writing, about the editing, about the sending out, and you have to really love writing to put up with all that work.

Ten years, in a way, is pretty comforting. I don’t have to exit my MFA program and immediately get published and successful and be a star at AWP. I can get the chance to settle out, see what I really want to do, and just keep chipping away at what I really want.

Keep the love alive, folks.

The MFA

There’s a lot of differing opinions when it comes to whether a writer should get a MFA. In a recent interview I did with Marge Piercy that will be coming out in the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch, she says writers need to have life experiences in order to be better writers. We need to work on oil rigs, be fire fighters, doctors, travel the globe. Writers in academia have little time to explore the world, thus they must draw off of other writing to be inspired, and/or they are forced to “publish or perish.”

I applied to a MFA program because I wanted the time and space to work on my poetry. I was writing, but at my best, not very frequently. I didn’t know what I should be reading to help my work improve. I had submitted to literary journals before, but always stopped right after the first rejections rolled in. I had the idea that maybe my work needed something, and a program seemed like the way to go.

Today, half into my second to last semester, I’m so grateful I went to one, and especially the one at the University of Memphis. My first semester, I was shell-shocked around writers. At my first Southern Festival of Books, I was too much of a chicken to stand in line to get my book signed by a poet I heard read. They were who I wanted to be, yet I couldn’t even talk to them. Same thing at AWP. Went to a bunch of amazing sessions, talked to no one but the people in my group. I went to a session where Nicky Beer, James Allen Hall, and two other poets talked about how they organized their manuscript. I had really enjoyed the session and ended up buying Nicky Beer’s and James Allen Hall’s first books. Again, too much of a chicken to talk to them.

Through working with The Pinch, I had the opportunity to solicit Nicky Beer and James Allen Hall. Nicky Beer didn’t have work she could send me, but when it came time to pick a poetry judge for The Pinch’s annual contest, I was able to ask her, and she accepted. I solicited James Allen Hall as well and he submitted work. We published one of his poems in the Fall 2011 issue.

Over this past weekend, The Pinch celebrated the release of the Fall 2011 issue with a party. Six contributors came, which is an amazing turn-0ut (Chris Gavaler, James Allen Hall, Angie Macri, Alex Stein, Jannell McConnell, and Glenn Shaheen). I also was able to go to breakfast with James Allen Hall and drive him home after the party.

Networking is an important aspect in this business, and it’s one I hated the most when I came to a MFA program. I didn’t want to have to talk to people, let alone for a long enough time to be “friendly” with them at other places. It’s taken me over 2 years to get over that. At the Southern Festival of Books, I was able to comfortably talk with Darren Jackson, the editor from Grist (I bought his book, had him sign it, talked to him–not a big deal, but in the past, my God), Bobbie Ann Mason, William Pitt Root, and others. Then, at the release party this past weekend, I had a really wonderful time talking to James Allen Hall about his work and what he did to get where he is since I so admire him.

For me, experiencing the world and writing on my own would not have made me a better writer. I needed structure. I needed space. I needed someone to guide me, make suggestions. John Bensko is an amazing professor. I’ve learned so much from him over the past couple years, and I greatly respect him. Some people have made the assertion that once you join an MFA program, your writing will be too dependent on workshopping. That has not been the case for me. The longer I’ve been in school, the better I’ve been at editing my own work, and every piece I write does need time, and sometimes, I just need to let it have that. I have a lot of confidence in my own ability to edit today.

I also really needed to work on something like a literary journal. It taught me the business aspect of writing, got me to solicit writers I wanted to talk to, got me in an “in” in situations where I wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking to someone before (“Hey, I’m _______ for The Pinch.”), got me reading submissions and seeing what we looked for to get a sense of what other journals were probably looking for as well.

Not all people might need to attend an MFA program, but for me, it has been invaluable. From the outside, the writing world seems big and frightening. From the inside, it’s rather small, and that’s why those relationships and how to manage those relationships are so important.

Did you get a MFA? Why or why not?

Book Festivals are Alive & Well

The Southern Festival of Books was a wonderful success. The Pinch had a blast.

Some of my favorites from this weekend:

Darren Jackson (editor of Grist, translator, and a poet)

Jim Shepard (novelist/short story writer)

Bobbie Ann Mason (who during the “thank you” reception party took refuge at our little Pinch table and talked to me a lot about her 7 dogs and 6 cats and even showed me pictures! (novelist/short story writer, famous as all get-out))

William Pitt Root (who wrote a gorgeous poem about slug sex (poet, translator, editor of Cutthroat))

Book festivals are rejuvenating and great precursors to AWP. I heard a lot of great poetry. I thought up a lot of great ideas for poems. I bought some great books of poetry that inspired me. I even heard some great excerpts from short stories and novels.

I heard a lot of talks about the sustainability of books and writing. Some people think making poetry more exciting by including readings on itunes would help, or for literary journals to go all online. I don’t agree with either. Reading something in a book is a far different experience for me than reading something on my computer or my Kindle. Yes, it’s nice carrying like 1000 something books in a tiny device, but I love flipping pages, the feel of the weight in my hand, to be able to quickly check where I am in the book and how far I have to go.

The festival had a great turn-out. We at The Pinch volunteered to help out, and we saw a lot of people in nearly every session. A lot of people also attended the party. A lot of people checked out our booth and bought an issue. That’s a good enough sign that things are okay for the time being.

Next time there’s a book festival in your area, think about volunteering. Think about going and checking out the booths, attending sessions over multiple days, trying different genres, picking lesser-known and more well-known writers/poets to listen to. Really getting involved. Day-to-day life can be a toxic environment to the writer, but after the festival, I felt like I could breathe in a new way.

More info on how to submit properly

My new husband came down with the sniffles and since he’s my new husband, I made sure to kiss him several times and pick off his food because we’re supposed to “share everything together.” Being a newlywed makes you stupid. While he was getting a little bit better, I wasn’t feeling so great. I still got up and sat in front of my computer during my scheduled writing time, but writing wasn’t really coming to me. I decided to do what every writer should do when inspiration isn’t happening: Submit, submit, submit.

We all hate submitting. It’s a pain. Personalized cover letters. Getting squared away with the guidelines (because this is important. Don’t be stupid and think it’s a good idea to send 10 poems and no cover letter to every journal, because you will become the writer I talk about in this post). Making sure your work fits along with the journal’s aesthetic (my God is this a hard thing to do. Sometimes, it’s easier to send off a submission into the bleak unknown of a journal you know nothing about, but expect a rejection. At The Pinch, we get so many submissions from people who have obviously never read our journal, who think “gritty” means lots of sex (specifically really, really weird sex) or lots of violence (or really, really weird violent sex). We don’t publish lots of sex or lots of violence just for the sake of either. We have published pieces with sex and violence in them, definitely, but only ones that really push out beyond that, that have some greater meaning. There’s a piece in our Fall 2011 issue that has sex and blood, but the last paragraph really pushes beyond that and it’s gorgeous. Buy the issue here and figure out if you can tell me what piece I’m talking about!). Making sure you haven’t submitted too much to a particular journal already (try to submit only once a submission period UNLESS an editor so kindly asks you to submit more work, then go right ahead! (but also make sure to be clear on your cover letter that so-and-so requested more work from you) Then, stuffing envelopes or submitting online, then waiting.

In my MFA program, people do not submit enough. They use a lot of excuses: “I’m too busy.” “I’ve got too much grading to do.” “I haven’t had time to edit anything.” “Every time I submit something, I get rejected.” These are all valid excuses.

First off, it doesn’t take that much time to submit something if you do everything a little at a time:

-Choose 3 journals to send to, get a sense of them (or maybe you already have a sense of them).

-Put packets together of work you can live with if it’s published (even try throwing a poem in there you’re not totally comfortable with, you may get surprised) (I had a poem I turned in for workshop that no one even wanted to make comments on because I had included a pretty gross line in it. I sent it out just as a fluke. It got accepted within a week. I’m still sort of embarrassed that it got published and I’d never include it in a poetry collection (at least today, I may get over that in the future), but hey! It got published!)

-Send them off at your leisure, but make sure to keep records of when you did and what you sent to whom, etc.

-Pick some non-simultaneous submissions journals (like the Beloit Poetry Journal or North American Review) to submit to. Pick work that you are NOT SUBMITTING ANYWHERE ELSE. While these journals may seem daunting , they have an AMAZING turnaround period. My poor friend got a rejection in 6 hours. Many other times, I’ve gotten rejections WITH some comments about my work within a couple of weeks, so it’s not like you’re waiting around for months to hear about one group of poems or a story, and comments about your work are gems whenever you get them. Don’t be afraid of these journals. Be choosy about what you send them. They get less submissions (I’m assuming) because they don’t accept simultaneous ones, thus they can go through submissions more quickly.

Getting published now and often is important to building up whatever writerly reputation you may want to have in the long run. In my MFA program, we write. I have to write 11 poems per semester for one workshop class and that means I have 11 opportunities to come up with something decent enough to send out. I may not be able to give it the time to percolate into the masterpiece it might become, but publishing IS important, especially when it comes to getting books published later. Start small, then build up to sending off those masterpieces (some of my masterpieces still have yet to get published).

Once you get published, personally thank the genre editor for that issue for publishing your work. Stop by the journal’s booth at AWP and say hi. Ask for the genre editor by name and see when they’ll be at the booth so you can come back and see them personally. Relationships are so important. My first year at AWP, I personally went over and thanked Tanya Chernov of The Los Angeles Review for working with me on revising a poem and was really glad I did. It’s so good to put a face and voice to the nebulous person behind e-mails and editor titles. Also, being an editor, it’s wonderful when contributors come over and say “Thank you.” Our job is a hard one, and it doesn’t feel so hard when we can see what good we’ve done for someone else by choosing their work to be published in our journal. I’ve fought for pieces before, felt so passionately that we must publish a piece that I went against other editors to make it happen. When I met the person whose work I fought for, it was all worth it. I had helped make one of their dreams come true.

Instead of: “We must, we must, we must increase our busts!” It should read, “We must, we must, we must increase our submissions!”

Go out and get published! Don’t be stupid about it!