Reading Around the Slush Pile: A Word About Editing

Here’s something great about being an editor: reading around is the bulk of the job. Yes, there are the mundane bits like mailing out galleys, cross-referencing the table of contents with page numbers, checking for serial commas in the contributor bios, and haggling over comma usage. But most days, my work as a poetry editor involves reading what is offered to me. Some of it needs more time to grow and develop, much of it is strong. Some of it I don’t understand, or don’t believe. But I’m always hoping that the next attachment I open will contain that rare poem that makes my heart beat faster and forces me to get up and walk around the room in a dither of excitement. The poem that makes me want to call someone and say you’ve got to listen to this.

When I began editing, I worried that I would burn out on poetry. How much poetry can one person read without getting tired of thinking about lines and rhythms and forms and format? A great deal, I’ve discovered. The landscape of contemporary poetry is varied and fascinating, and the range of work I have the honor of reading never becomes dull, even when I have 100 poems to read at a sitting (as I do this evening, as it happens). Reading work for magazines has also taught me a good deal about what the literary landscape looks like at the moment, and about the behaviors and practices of poets in their natural habitat: the slush pile. I think some of what I’ve observed may be of use to writers submitting their work:

1. Show Range

I receive a great many poems about travel. Of course, this makes a lot of sense. Who wouldn’t feel inspired by a trip to France? And there’s that whole plane ride home during which to write about it. But reading about other people’s travels can be a huge bore. It’s the literary equivalent of being forced to watch your uncle Todd’s vacation slide shows. When I get a submission full of poems written about what a person ate in various coastal towns, with the names of the foods dutifully italicized to highlight their exotic nature, I start dozing off. The poems may be well written, but I’ll never be persuaded to get excited about them. Now if a submission were a sort of sampler, with perhaps a travel poem and four poems on other topics, I’d have a much better chance of finding a piece that worked for me and for the magazine.

A caveat: editors are by no means unanimous on the issue of range (or on the issue of travel poems!). Some magazines want to take groups of linked poems by a few authors rather than the wide assortment of poems I prefer for The Los Angeles Review. But I don’t think a writer would be ill-advised to show a bit of variety, even in a group of connected material. Keep it fresh, and you’ll keep an editor’s interest.

2. Keep the Submission about the Work

Fonts and photos and animations, oh my! Some writers feel that adding odd attachments or additional features to submissions will help their odds. I’ve been sent photos of people in skimpy beachwear, headache-inducing animations of animals bobbing around the computer screen, and, of course many strange fonts in flashy colors. The hot pink poems I read recently made me wish I’d been editing in the days of inkjet printers that couldn’t accommodate color. A writer is best served when he keeps the submission professional, clean, and entirely focused on the quality of the work.

3. Edgy Isn’t Edgy When Everyone is Doing It

I see a lot of poems from writers who seem to think their work is edgy, even revolutionary. They give a great deal of time to sex and violence, thinking the reader is going to be wowed by the descriptions of body parts either performing some function or being lopped off. Let me be clear: cheap gore and graphic descriptions aren’t interesting, and they’re certainly not original. A great many of the poems I receive rely primarily on their shock value. If you want to truly push boundaries, you must first push yourself, and make sure you’ve got something to say behind all that viscera. Writers should absolutely write about ugliness, but it had better cost them something.

Phew. Now it’s time to climb off that soapbox, and read those 100 poems waiting for my attention. I have a good feeling that one of those rare poems is waiting.

12 Replies to “Reading Around the Slush Pile: A Word About Editing”

  1. You pretty much hit it on the head. Those of us in the business of acquisitions generally have to sift through an extensive amount of work that for one reason or another is just not what we’re looking for. Space is limited, time is limited and your project has to be well-conceived and presented in a clean, professional manner in order to have a chance. Once we find that rare piece that resonates beauty within us, all the hours of slush, headaches and heavy eyelids become well worth it. We do this because we love quality writing and want to help authors achieve the success they deserve.

  2. Exactly. And yet, there’s the frustrating element–the bottleneck quality of being a literary “gatekeeper.” If I had the time to personally workshop every poem that was close-but-not-quite, I would. It genuinely makes me sad not to be able to help guide nearly-great work to its final form.

  3. Right. That’s one of the main reasons why I go to so many conferences. Most of the attending writers pitch works that, unbeknownst to them, just aren’t ready. I like being able to steer them in the right direction and help them fix the problems they have. My favorite conference moment happened at a cocktail mixer on the first night, when a writer I had talked to earlier in the day came up to me and said, “I was going to pitch you on Sunday, but now I just want to go home and write.” Beautiful.

  4. Kelly, you’re so accommodating. I know some editors who wouldn’t bother to read the hot pink, flashy font, animation-laced submissions, and who would trash a travel poem based solely on the title.

  5. I am a poetry co-editor as well and hypothetically speaking, how can I ENCOURAGE people to send scantily clad beachwear pictures? I’m not saying we’re going to publish them, I’m just saying…(perhaps I should say “hypathetically” instead).

    Hope you’re well Kelly. Keep up the passion friend.

  6. Michael, I should mention that I’ve mostly gotten photos of dudes. Dudes in speedos. Somehow, I’m not sure that’s the kind of viewing material you’re after!

  7. Joe, I won’t say I’m never tempted to toss a wonky-looking submission! But I do try to remember that, whatever the submission may be, it means something to the person who sent it. And I’m sure that, when I was just starting to publish, I did some terribly amateur and grimace-worthy things, too.

  8. Kelly, a great summary of what it’s really like to go through that slushpile. I read submissions for my own small press and in the past have been poetry reader for Boulevard and other journals — and poems that follow the ‘edgy’ trend just because it’s the trend do become numbing. Some of the best poetry comes out of the mouths of writers who might not be ‘keeping up’ with the latest trends, and are just plumbing their own well, not aware of today’s current fasion.

  9. Becky, I agree; finding work that’s different and authentic to the voice of the poet is priceless. Give me honest, well-crafted work over trendy and experimental poems any day.

    I really enjoyed learning about your press as well! All the best with your work with Cherry Pie. 🙂

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