“On Submitting Poems: By Any Means Necessary” by Bruce Cohen

Bruce Cohen


I wish I could tap together my ruby red L.L. Bean slippers and post questions to a Wizard of Oz Poetry Editor so I could unravel the esoteric truths and mysteries about what factors, what esthetics, he really considers when deciding whether or not to accept my poems, what the deal breakers are. To think that “famous names” on submitted poems don’t influence the decision making process strikes me as naïve, although I noticed a few magazines are now requesting that poets not place their names on the poems themselves, which is a very democratic idea. An anti-nepotism movement has been gaining momentum in all aspects of life in America. I’m not yet decided where I fall on that argument. Political graft has never bothered me as long as those crooked politicians support the arts and I believe friends should help friends; who could argue with that? I also wish there was Instant Messenger for poetry submissions. At the very least, for a small fee, magazines could offer same-day response service, like the better dry cleaners. This might be a wonderfully innovative way for magazines to generate revenue, keep subscription costs down and thereby increase readership. Screeners could even receive a small salary. Because I doubt these things will be coming along soon, I’ll take a mundane, less creative view of submitting poems to literary journals and throw in my two-cents worth to boot. I suspect we, poets, (fiction writers seem more patient and mature. I know; I’m married to one.) have a love-hate-mild infatuation-voodoo-pin relationship with editors of literary journals. They have the power, of course, to make us rock-star famous, as much as poets can be rock-star famous. We want them to love us, find us sexy and attractive, admire our quirky sensibilities, and naturally, publish our poems. Sometimes we are so delusional we even hope that editors will solicit our work in the future, or grace their periodical covers with our cool, pouty photos, but let’s not get too carried away here. Not only do we wish for them to publish our poems, but we want them to drown us with a lavish confetti-filled praise parade, let us know that we are indeed, the genius the literary world has been waiting for. No writer since the advent of the printing press has approached the brilliant insights and deep human understanding that we have. No one, to date, demonstrates the linguistic talent or musical ear or explores so marvelously the world the way we do. No one else can break hearts with the simple stroke of a pen. We would like, please, to have that acknowledged. Aside from our intellectual brilliance and keen artistic vision, we would like to be interviewed on CNN to provide our vision of world politics and sports, both college and professional. Why not invite one of us to ring the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange? Of course it is always nice when editors add in the fact that they understand why our genius has been overlooked for so long: the average editor is simply not perceptive enough to appreciate the true level of our, how shall I say this, genius. And we poets simply love our feedback, by snail or electronic mail, by phone, carrier pigeon, or telepathic signals. Some of us even accept transmissions in our dreams, as long as you don’t reverse the charges. (Does that date me?)

In my years of blindly submitting my poems to literary periodicals, I have come across more than my fair share of generous, thoughtful, encouraging and welcoming editors, many of whom have never even accepted my work. There are editors who actually make you feel validated with a pleasant rejection slip. I am sensitive to the fact that most magazines can’t afford the luxury of personal replies, as they are bombarded with gazillions of submissions each year. Some even boast about the fact that they are only able to publish one half of one millionth of one percent of submissions each year. Sometimes, after reading some guidelines, I feel like I’d have a better chance of hitting clean-up for the 1927 Yankees. And there are editors who accept your work with just a form that makes you feel like the proverbial piece of poet-meat. I once thought, though I would never say this out loud, that I would prefer a well-written detailed rejection letter than a form acceptance. Not really of course, but I thought it for a second while riding majestically on my high horse. I have engaged in persnickety correspondence with big-name editors who have lambasted me for not honoring their code of ethics by my unforgiveable sin of simultaneously submitting my poems to their journal (violating their guidelines) and (heaven forbid) having the same poem accepted at another journal before they had the honor of rejecting me, at least being offered the right of first refusal. By and large an OCD rule-follower who tries to be kind and professional, I thought I was being courteous by withdrawing my submission “immediately” after it had been accepted elsewhere; I even offered over the top apologies. I never make up stories, though I am tempted, and do, in fact, send an email or call the same day. Most editors send warm thanks and offer sincere congratulations. Next time they better jump on my poems before they get swallowed up by the competition. At least that’s what I fantasize they think.

After being crucified by some editors, who I assume would not have been the bullies in the playground but the kids whose lunch money we took, who are seeking revenge instead of engaging in healthy therapy, I am genetically unable to let matters just drop in a mature way, because publishing a poem “by any means necessary” has so much effect on the world. Justice must be served. So, I am not afraid to engage in war, fighting dirty if I must, dragging out the heavy artillery of cancelling my subscription, assuming a fake pathetic persona to garner upper hand sympathy, infiltrating with literary spies, and shooting a bazooka of both Catholic and Jewish guilt, not to mention dragging out all the unspoken nasty weapons. You might be thinking, is publishing poetry worth it? The answer, of course, is an unequivocal yes. The world cannot continue like this. If an editor doesn’t realize how difficult and time consuming and painful and full of longing it is to submit a poem, wait, wait, and wait by the mailbox, only to have the poem rejected for publication, who does? If an editor doesn’t recognize how needle-in-a-haystack it is to get a poem accepted, who does? In one such particular case, after I dutifully withdrew my submission and the editor lambasted me for violating his magazine’s “clear and specific” guidelines, the editor later wrote a beautiful criticism of one of my other poems from that same batch that he salvaged out of the quicksand slush pile and made some amazingly wonderful, detailed suggestions. He made the poem infinitely better and was kind enough to invite me to resubmit it, whether I chose to incorporate his revision ideas or not. Naturally I thought it was a trick. I assumed he was simply toying with my emotions, trying to throw me a bone of hope only to crush me for the umpteenth time. To my pleasant surprise, he later accepted the poem which was thrilling. I guess he felt bad for acting like a jerk. Maybe my scathing letters and threats made him recognize that he was taking himself too seriously or maybe he thought I was a lunatic who’d storm into his office with an Uzi. Perhaps he simply didn’t remember me, unable put two plus two together, and the poem wasn’t half-bad.

Quite a number of years back, when I was a green, unhardened rookie in the poetry submission biz, a reputable magazine, whose name I don’t want to mention as I assume the editorship has changed many times and I’m sure their practices are very different now, oh well, it was Nimrod, accepted one of my poems, offered suggestions about revising another poem, consequently accepted that one as well, and I was on cloud nine where “I could be what I want to be.” Dancing in the street. Then, months later, I received a letter indicating that they would, though highly unusual, have to renege on the acceptance due to unforeseeable and unprecedented difficult budgetary issues. They were sure I’d understand; I didn’t. Crestfallen, I found it curious that the magazine continued to publish, is still publishing, but mysteriously couldn’t hold my poems over for the next issue. Hmmm. Maybe the next editor read my poems and thought, Wow, these are really, really lousy. We can’t publish this garbage. As a young poet, getting an acceptance is a big deal. Poets take acceptance very seriously. Jennifer Knox, in one of her poems, acknowledges that she masturbates upon every acceptance. Well, at least she admits her utter abandoned glee. And having the carpet pulled out from your feet is a devastating blow, not to mention embarrassing. I had already bragged to my mother that my poems would be appearing in print. The disappointment literally killed her. At least that’s what I wrote to the new editor who did not budge on his un-acceptance. I have nothing but ill will towards Nimrod, for eternity.

Very recently, this sort of thing happened again. I received a phone call from the poetry editor of the Florida Review in the spring of 2008, accepting four poems. Four is a big number in the poetry world. I emailed him a confirmation and he responded in kind. When I didn’t hear anything for six months and received no contract, I called the magazine, which had changed editorship. They stated that it was unfortunate and awkward, but since I had no contract, they would not honor the verbal or email commitment by the previous administration. They emphasized that they would, of course, have published the poems if a contract existed. Duh. If a contract existed? Even though I’m not a lawyer, I’ve watched enough Judge Judy to know that it is a law to honor a contract, and a verbal contract is worth something, too. Wasn’t the past poetry editor a “representative” of the magazine? The new editor did, apparently, pass my poems on to the poetry editor (curious that they still had them if they weren’t accepted) who said that the poems “didn’t suit her vision of the next two issues.” Silly me. I didn’t realize editors had visions; I sort of imagined they accepted the best poems submitted unless they were publishing a theme issue. Naturally I had taken the poems out of circulation, was heartbroken and I falsely assumed that the editors, being writers themselves, would know the disappointment of having poems accepted, then not. In their defense, they did offer to allow me to submit other poems (how generous of them). As a matter of principle, I can’t. I guess it might have been reasonable, in order to maintain good will, for them to offer a reasonable compromise, say publish one of the four poems.

When I sent this essay slash rant to Timothy Green, editor of Rattle, who is one of the good guy editors, he made an excellent suggestion to include his favorite urban poetry legend, which I never heard, but is a terrific idea. He told me:

When I heard the story it was Donald Hall, because he was the Poet Laureate at the time…in reality it was probably Kay Ryan. When she was a young poet, Kay really wanted to get into Poetry, as everyone does. She submits several times, only to get the same photocopied form rejection. Finally she decides to include a note: “Dear Hayden [maybe it was Carruth at the time], Thanks so much for your thorough and expert suggestions on my recent submission, and moreover, I’m honored that you took the time to respond personally. I agree completely with your brilliant editorial eye, and have made each of the corrections you suggested. The poem has improved tremendously, and I hope you’ll agree when you read the enclosed revision. Sincerely, Kay.” Kay Ryan then encloses the exact same poem, without changing a word from the original submission. Carruth accepts the poem and thirty years later Kay is Poet Laureate.

It reminded me of a true story: a very close personal friend, very famous (I will not use his name as he is humble and I’m not a name-dropper) submitted a short story to a well-respected literary journal only to have the piece rejected with a form rejection slip. Inadvertently, he submitted the story again to the same journal and it was accepted. But that’s not the end of the little saga. The story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won that. An agent read the story and inquired if he had a novel, which he did. The novel was published to wide critical acclaim and he was offered contracts for future novels. His book was one of the Oprah books, made the New York Times Best Seller list, translated into foreign languages, the whole ball of wax. And now, he’s wicked famous, a famous writer for eternity, all because he sent a story back (by accident) to a magazine that rejected the very same story. Go figure.

Most editors, though, are caring and work for the love of literature, groom and coddle writers with virtually no reward, save their own inner satisfaction. Though I’ve never been an editor myself (I’m paradoxically way too nice and not nice enough), I can imagine that it is an extremely grueling and time-consuming job. There are many editors who I would fight to the death to defend; that’s how highly I think of them. Their kindness has made a profound difference in my self-esteem and positively affected the lives of so many writers. Some, on the other hand, are a little arrogant and I imagine might be placed below Dante’s Hell, forced to read Hallmark verse for eternity while listening to squeaky recordings of my ninth-grade English teacher lecturing on Paradise Lost. So, I’ve created my own set of guidelines for submitting poems and some random observations, some of which might be construed as heresy.

  • I FIND THE NOTION of no simultaneous submissions utterly ridiculous. The writer and editor have no commitment or agreement to one another, a blind submission is simply a shot in the dark, a risk taken by the writer. Sidebar: how does an editor know if you are submitting exclusively to him anyway? It can’t be an honor system. Who in their right mind would trust a poet? Editors must cross reference every submission they receive with all the other magazines. Maybe that’s why it takes editors so long to get back to you with your tiny rejection slips. The propaganda about understaffed and underpaid editors may not be true; it might be an urban legend. It’s still a competitive world, with free enterprise and stuff; hence, it should be illegal to dictate no simultaneous submissions, except for the magazines that truly honor their “response time” and that “response time” is within a reasonable timeframe: six weeks or less seems about right. Sidebar: what are the chances that your poems are so fabulous that they would get taken at two places at once anyway? I admit, (braggart that I am) that that has happened a few times to me and it’s very pleasingly awkward. That’s why I let the other magazine know immediately if a poem they are considering has been accepted elsewhere. Fair is fair. I think it’s good to be polite. Most editors are grateful and congratulate me, happy that they have one less rejection notice to send out. However, once an editor accepts my work, or even writes a kind rejection note, I always honor his/her guidelines to the letter. It’s my code. Another way of thinking about it, shouldn’t we ask as many women as possible to marry us in the hopes that one will? Sorry, bad example.
  • PLACING A LIMIT on the number of times one can submit during a reading period is sensible—I like that idea. It’s smart. It keeps submissions to a reasonable number. It sort of forces you to send your best stuff, since you have only one bite at the Garden of Eden apple, although most poets don’t really know what their best stuff is. Side bar: I assume that the zany, untalented poets are the only ones who suicide bomb the same magazine with infinite submissions. When there are more journals out there than the dollar figure of our national debt why keep trying to force your way into one? A matter of pride? Those nutty poets are the ones who don’t have a snowball’s chance in Nimrod of getting a poem taken anyway. So, maybe editors should only limit the number of submissions to the crazy poets. Put that in their guidelines. Most of the rest of us have a little dignity and a sense of appropriate protocol.
  • I HAVE SUBMITTED poems with the appropriate SASE that have never been returned. I have had poems, submitted through the internet, evaporate into cyberspace. I guess this happens by the law of averages if you submit enough poems, but it makes me feel like a parent out in the dark woods with a dying flashlight, calling the names of my children who have not come home. Everyday I wake up hopeful that they will arrive on my doorstep safe and well-fed, with a little treat from their journey. I cross that magazine off my list and send the poems elsewhere and vow to never send again. I’ll show them. They’ll be sorry. I order additional voodoo pins. The New Yorker is an exception; no matter how much they ignore me I send once a year, like a holiday.
  • I TRY TO KEEP my cover letters short, professional, simultaneously humble yet full of accolades. I’d rather editors hated me for myself and my poems, not my cover letter.
  • BECAUSE THERE ARE MANY editors who are courteous and efficient and clearly love what they are doing, every time I get a little money from a publication or a grant, I always subscribe to a few periodicals. The Karma Thing. I mean to send a note letting the good editors of those magazines know that I did so because of their diligence and respect for writers…not to mention the quality of their magazine. I sometimes actually write that note. Occasionally I even mail it. Sidebar: I hate a solicitation for a subscription from a magazine right after I have submitted to it, just before they reject my work. Show some guts, please. If your magazine is really good, I’ll buy it. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you accept my work or not. Am I supposed to think that if I subscribe that my chances for acceptance will be increased? Do you think I won’t if I’m rejected? If that’s the case, I change my mind; I don’t want to be published in your journal. I do have some standards.
  • AS AN ELITIST SNOB with very particular, judgmental, inflexible tastes, I am often mystified by what makes it into the magazines. I shake my head in disbelief at the unimaginative drivel. I often reread the lousy poems several times, worrying that perhaps I’m the moron who simply doesn’t get it. Nah. Some people actually see art differently from the way I see it, as goofy as that may sound. Maybe the editor simply has bad taste or only publishes his friends. Maybe he has too many undergraduates screening the poems and the only poems they publish are the watered down ones a majority can agree on. Since they probably haven’t read enough good poems in their lives, they probably just don’t know the difference. I like magazines where one person controls the content. You know then, with whom you’re dealing. Yes, I like dictator poetry journals. Very little room for ambiguity of taste, though sometimes I am pleasantly surprised.
  • SOMETIMES I READ a poem that knocks me for a loop from a poet I am not familiar with. I instantly Google her/him to see if they have books out and order them. That’s what I like about the magazines. Discovery. I like editors who keep their minds’ open and I despise cronyism, unless they are personal friends of mine, in which case I am pro crony, especially if they publish my poems.
  • I HATE IT WHEN an editor writes that he is considering your work (you are a “finalist”) and we will be getting back to you in say, two weeks. Months drift by and you still haven’t heard. Seasons come and go. Then a form rejection arrives in the mail a decade later. That reminds me, a girl who I had a crush on promised to dance with me a hundred years ago but the dance ended at midnight and I am still standing alone on the boys’ side of the deserted gymnasium. All the balloons are deflated and the theme decorations are scattered on the floor. I’d been practicing my dance moves every night in front of the mirror. I feel bad and dejected and lonely and like a fool. Please lie to me. At least make up a believable story.
  • SOMETIMES MY POEMS are rejected because they’re lousy or need more work. I’m okay with that. Sometimes the editor isn’t smart enough to see how wonderful they are. I believe in the cliché that there is no accounting for taste. Sometimes the editor has too much of a backlog. I’m okay with that, except, post that you’re no longer accepting submissions. Duh! Why create more wasted time, expense and work for us both. Why kindle hope when no hope exists?
  • SOMETIMES MY POEMS are accepted but I don’t know why. It would be nice if the editor could write even a sentence about why she took my poem. Legible handwriting is nice.
  • EVEN CHICKEN SCRATCH on a rejection slip makes me feel that a human being actually read the submission. Some places send the poems back neater (they actually looker cleaner) than when I folded them into the envelope. The rejection slip looks as though it was untouched by human hands. Creepy. Mostly I send out poems because I like the mystery that someone I don’t know might read my art and think, Yeah, this is pretty good, maybe other folks might like to read it too. And, I still hold out hope that someday my genius might be recognized. But mostly, I just like the possibility of getting good mail.

from Rattle e.6, Spring 2009


Bruce Cohen is the Director of The Counseling Program for Intercollegiate Athletes at the University of Connecticut. His poems have appeared in various literary publications including AGNI On-line, The Georgia Review, The Harvard Review, The Indiana Review, The Ohio Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, TriQuarterly and Quarterly West. A recipient of an individual artist grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, his book, Disloyal Yo-Yo, winner of the Orphic Poetry Prize, was recently published and second book is forthcoming, Swerve from Black Lawrence Press.

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