Wednesday, March 10, 2010

And From the Other Side of the Desk - Poet as Editor

Is this what editors do? She seems to be slicing a book in half with her sword, taming the words or destroying them? At the moment I am guest editing a portfolio of ekphrastic poems for the fall issue of Crab Creek Review. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's fascinating, and many times I wonder what I have gotten myself into...

I've been amazed at the volume of poems that come into my email box (a box set aside just for this project) and the various ways that people care to identify themselves. To be honest, I've also been amazed at my reactions to the wide variety of  personas. Here is some advice from one poet temporarily turned editor. Three easy to follow rules and you will be ahead of the poetry pack.

1. Do follow the guidelines. I wanted poems that were copied in the body of an email because it allows me to work much faster and to avoid any unintended (or intended?) viruses. I also have a tight page constraint and asked for poems to be less than 30 lines long. Unfortunately, only about 50% of the poets followed these directions. Sometimes when I've emailed and asked folks to re-send they have refused! Take it or leave it one guy said.

2. Be polite. For example, don't tell the editor that they better not change a word, but they can fix typos as required. The editor is not your secretary and your secretary should not be talked down to like this either. Do poets really have secretaries?

3. Do write only 3-4 lines about yourself. The poem is what I care about, not what MFA program you teach in (or study in). I am utterly flabbergasted by the long bios (sometimes going back decades) that poets send in with one little ekphrastic poem. Trust me, the bio is not what interests an editor. Sorry, but no one cares how many times you've been published. Less really is more in this situation.

I realize I have been guilty of trying to impress an editor with my publications or my unusual cover letters in the past. Sitting on this side of the desk reinforces that nothing stands in for the poem itself. I have about fifteen or so pages of poetry to work with and I plan to love every single poem - LOVE - that's a lot to ask of a poem --- so if I don't choose yours, please don't be angry with me. We went on a lovely first date - but the chemistry just wasn't there. It's not you, it's me ...


  1. Good advice! Thank you, Susan.

  2. Excellent post. Crab Creek is fortunate to have you guest editing. I'm anxious to see the final production.

  3. Thanks for the reminders, Susan! Good luck with the editorial duties.

  4. Thanks, Mim, Michael, and Sandy,
    I'm glad this was a helpful reminder. I was afraid I sounded too sarcastic (I was born and bred in Boston) but it's true that I needed a reminder of these three guidelines, too!

  5. When I was in graduate school, David Wagoner brought in a box of submissions to Poetry Northwest, (all unopened), and proceeded to open one after another. He read cover letters, held up the poems to show us how they were formatted, etc.
    This was one of the best experiences I'd had in a poetry workshop to date. (One particular cover letter was pages long!)

    Really good advice, Susan.

  6. Susan, Crab Creek's special poetry section is in the best possible hands. I know how hard it is to say no, especially when so much fine work is coming your way. But as submitting poet myself, I like to think every no gets us closer to the yes that's meant to be.

    Best, Lana

  7. People never cease to amaze! All best with the slashing and burning; some pearls will doubtless emerge from the ashes for your portfolio...