Dos and Don’ts from the Poetry Editor

I have been reading poems as one of two poetry editors for the fledgling litmag Timberline Review. Over the last few weeks, I have read and reread at least a couple hundred poems, voting yes, no or maybe on the Submittable form that we use. Some of these decisions are easy. The poems are awful. Click on the thumbs-down marker. Others are brilliant. Click thumbs up, yes, yes, yes. Most fall somewhere in the middle. Click the question mark for “maybe.” They have what my friend Dorothy calls “lines to die for,” but there’s something not quite right. Maybe we can’t figure out what they’re trying to say. Maybe they’re mixing their metaphors. Maybe the last line falls flat.

The poetry editors and managing editors have been meeting to hash out which poems to use. It’s a grueling process. I want to share with you what I’m learning about how it works from the inside and what I’m learning about my own poetry. For example, today I realized a poem I thought was brilliant last week would never be accepted. So, here are a few lessons, most of which apply to any kind of writing you submit:

* If it says “blind submissions,” don’t put your name on the page with your poem or on the file name. We’re ignoring these mistakes this time, but most editors won’t.

* Write your poems in the heat of inspiration, but at some point, go back and figure out what you’re trying to say and make sure the poem says it.

* Weird is only okay if it works.

* Pick one great metaphor or simile and stick with it.

* Learn the difference between “its” and “it’s”.

* Spend extra time with your last lines. The thing we want to change most often is the last lines. Usually we want to take them out because they’re unnecessary. The poet has lingered too long.

* Consider whether your poem would rather be prose, whether the line breaks don’t really make it “poetic.” I think that’s the main problem with my poem from last week.

* Don’t preach in your poem unless you’re submitting to a religious publication.

* Give your submission a file name that says something more than “five poems for x review” so we can find them in the submissions queue. Try the title of one of your poems.

* Expect to wait a while for an answer about your submission. We each read these poems, have a meeting to talk about them, weigh the ones we like against the other ones we like, consider how they will fit together and how much space we have, meet again, and then we notify the writers yay or nay. Only the definite no’s get an early answer, so give us time to love your poems and figure out where to put them.

* Our deadline for submissions was March 31. About half our writers waited until the last minute. Send your stuff early if you can. The editors will be less rummy and will read with clearer minds.

There will be more lessons to share, I’m sure. Our magazine is Timberline Review. Visit the website for details. Our plan is to debut the first issue at the Willamette Writers conference in Portland, Oregon the first weekend of August. It is going to be full of great writing. You can reserve a copy now at the website.

Comments? Questions? I’m here.

Now go write.

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2 Comments on “Dos and Don’ts from the Poetry Editor”

  1. drew myron says:

    Excellent points, Sue!
    “Weird is only okay if it works.” — yes, exactly.

  2. Lee Lynch says:

    Good editor, Sue!


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