Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Poetry Magazines and Book Manuscripts

One difficulty in getting a poetry manuscript together is the need to assess my own work, to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. One thing that makes me wonder about myself is the way I am consistently rejecting poems that I have previously published in magazines – not everything, but a fair number.

Often the poems I’ve written that I like best are those which magazine editors have rejected, often several times. In some cases, this could be because I have missed something, or because my sense of what makes a good poem is all wrong. Sometimes I read weak poems in magazines and wonder what possessed an editor to think they were any good. Then I wonder if there’s something lacking in me, if I can’t see quality when it hits me between the eyes.

On the other hand, I also believe that strong poems, rejected by magazines, still find their way into collections and find an appreciative audience in that context. That’s my hope anyway, and I hope am not deluding myself.


James Midgley said...

I guess all that is normal, Rob. It's certainly the way I've always felt when putting together collections for my own perverse enjoyment (in a rather Larkin-esque way).

In the end I suppose it's important to 'stay true to your feelings' (blech) -- but by now those feelings have been hugely tempered by the poetry environment anyway, so it shouldn't result in anything majorly off (in theory).

A friend of mine has a collection contract with Bluechrome (who you're going to try?) and hasn't heard back from them in months, despite phonecalls, emails and letters. Seems a bit odd to me.


Matt Merritt said...

I don't think you're deluding yourself at all, Rob. I've always found the same thing - that a lot of the poems I'm most proud of get rejected, and that some of mine that do get accepted by mags are the last I'd have expected to. I think it's just down to the tastes of individual editors.
With my chapbook, I'd say there are five poems that people who have read it have picked out as favourites, or which got mentioned in reviews. Of them, four got rejected several times by mags.
Of course, as you say, there are poems that just beg to be part of a larger whole, too.

Colin Will said...

I think you're right Rob. I think there are 'magazine poems' which fit the needs of magazine publishers at one particular time, and there are 'collection poems' which demonstrate the range of your poetic skills.

What I always advise, and it's exactly what you and Andrew Philip are doing, is to hand the manuscript over to a friend whose opinion you can trust.

Ben Wilkinson said...

I feel exactly the same about my work, Rob. You've been writing much longer than I have, of course, but there are many poems that I've written and like that still don't seem to fit with the majority of my other poems. And these days, collections do tend to centre on finding a poetic voice and a sort of consistency, rather than a demonstration of your various styles and abilities. Either way, I think there's a real skill to ordering poems in a collection, and it's one that I'm yet to acquire. That's where a good editor comes in for many, I imagine.

Rob said...

Some interesting points there. Thanks.

James, one of your comments is making me think and may result in a future blog post!

Matt, Colin - yes, I think a lot of it comes down to taste and particular quirks at particular times.

Ben, one thing I lament is the fashion for a consistent voice throughout a collection. I believe each poem should have the voice and tone and form that the poem requires, so I'm uneasy with such demands. I agree that it's what publishers seem to want though, which must have more to do with marketing strategy than poetry. Ordering poems is fun though!

Matt Merritt said...

I'm with you on that last point, Rob. There are lots of good collections that do have a consistent voice and/or theme, but I don't think either is an absolute essential. I can think of plenty of enjoyable collections that are essentially just a lot of occasional poems thrown together.
Also, I like what Glyn Maxwell said about poetry 'voices' - why settle for one? Isn't part of the appeal off poetry that you can use lots of different voices?

Colin Will said...

Annie Freud's new collection is a good example of a poet using multiple voices. In her case too, they're nearly all good ones.

James Midgley said...

Yeah, I've always thought that worrying too much about 'voice' to be, artistically-speaking, a bit indulgent and very much to do with marketing a personality rather than poetry.

But not-artistically-speaking I've always enjoyed the business-y side of writing (voice aside), hence the hundred poetry projects I have going at any one time. And you can't have everything: either publishers aren't doing enough to advertise poetry, or they're doing too much. Poets are tricky buggers.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Two months ago, I thought my first manuscript was done: revised, arranged, titled. Plus, I did not want to see it ever again. Then the summer vacation came, and I started fiddling with the manuscript again, and before I knew it, I have re-arranged the entire thing, cutting, adding, revising, fussing over it. Now it even has a new title. This round, I was more conscious than ever that a thematic, prosodic or image-based arrangement does not work for this manuscript. The poems are too varied in all three aspects. Yet I am not happy with Larkin's solution: arrange each poem in relation to the one before and after that in terms of music and length. That works for him because the miscellany is threaded by a consistent voice and prosody. My approach this round was to include only those poems I would be happy to send to a top-tier poetry magazine (not that they would necessarily be accepted). That reduced the number of poems drastically. The remaining poems were arranged according to subject matter, which gave me five sections, with a major sequence in each section, functioning as an opener, highlight or conclusion. Each section has its own mini-arrangement, whether narrative, or imagistic, or philosophical. I was also able to begin and end each section with the more formal poems, giving meter a ritualistic aspect. Then I saw I could have five poems in each section, with ten poems in the central third section. That meant the agonizing decisions of leaving out a couple of poems, and including a couple others initially rejected. But I wanted the symmetry: the patterning is crucial to my writing project. 5 sections, each with 5 or 10 poems; the centre of the central section, the middle of the book, pivoting on a relationship break-up. The challenge is to make every aspect of the collection mean something. An impossible ideal, but something to work towards. Which may mean another round of destruction. Sigh

Rob said...

Jee - sounds interesting. One to look forward to.

James - I think there are many ways to market a book, and 'voice' is only one of them. I don't object to marketing in itself. In fact, the more imaginatively poetry is marketed, the better, as long as the poetry is good!

Colin - I liked the Annie Freud too. I plan to re-read it in August when I've more time.

Matt - I like the Glyn Maxwell quote. It's also the Edwin Morgan effect.

Carrie Etter said...

I'd also say, don't give up on the poems you have a hard time placing if you still believe in them. This is one of the frustrating things about the UK poetry scene--there are a limited number of journals at each level, and of those, there will always be a few that a poem's clearly not suited for, so you can feel like you've gone through all the suitable journals pretty quickly. I recently had a quirky poem of mine published by a very good journal (I don't want to say which--I don't want it to get back to them!), that had been rejected by seven or eight other journals.

Anyway, my solution to the limited outlets here is to submit to US journals as well. I get back to the States from time to time and catch up, but The Poetry Library used to have some, too--perhaps the new and improved TPL does as well.

Good luck with the manuscript.


Rob said...

Carrie, I agree with you all the way there on the small number of UK journals, and I don't like sending to journals I rarely read, which cuts down my options further.

I've sliced the manuscript to 30 poems, of which only about 12-15 are definites. Ruthless stuff!