Saturday, December 14, 2013

F-f-f-f-five Th-th-things that D-d-d-d-don't S-s-s-s-s-suck, Chattering Teeth Edition

1. dogs who are smart enough to sleep in when it's really cold out
2. that $15 wool coat I bought a month or so ago
3. layers
4. fleece-lined anything
5. warm slippers*

*I don't think Santa reads this blog, but I figure it's worth a shot

Friday, December 13, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Friday the 13th Edition

1. black cats
2. stepping on cracks
3. three- or five-leaf clovers
4. face-down pennies
5. not believing in superstitions

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Baby It's Cold Outside Edition

1. sending my brother a text that reads "Have a holly, jolly Christmas, and in case you didn't hear, HAVE A HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS!!!" and having him reply that he did the same thing that morning when he heard Burl Ives singing
2. getting a private joke "Happy holidays..." message from his wife
3. discovering that the super-warm wool cardigan my friend Julie gave me buttons all the way up into a turtleneck
4. coconut carrot soup with a healthy dose of sambal oelek in it
5. getting my act together, Christmas-wise

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Slept in Edition

1. pumpkin bread
2. fluffy bathrobes
3. cafe latte
4. slippers
5. a good book

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Last Day on Campus Edition

1. seeing a truly gorgeous sunrise this morning
2. immediately thinking that it will be a while before I see one again because I will be able to sleep through the next 30 - 45 of them
3. poetry, and being able to write some
4. long runs, and having time to do more of them
5. the return of the slow-cup-of-coffee morning

Monday, December 9, 2013

On Picking Nits and Making Picks

Some of you might know that I'm the Managing Editor at Cider Press Review. We put out an online journal, a "best of" print edition, and two or three books a year, almost all of which come through the two contests we run annually. The Cider Press Book Award is independently judged—Caron Andregg and I (and occasionally one or two of the other editors) read through all of the manuscripts that come in, gradually narrow down the field, and send a selection of finalists to a judge who makes the final decision. The Editors Prize follows much the same process, with the exception that Caron and I decide which book to publish. We've received some fantastic manuscripts, and every time we come down to the final cut, be it choosing a pack of finalists or choosing which manuscript we'll publish next, we have to let other excellent manuscripts go.

If you don't know any of this, I'll forgive you. My own parents didn't know, and now that they're retired, it's basically their job to go around bragging about me when I'm out of earshot.

My time on the editorial staff at CPR has taught me surprising things about being a poet. First of all, I don't think it's possible to read that much poetry—and good poetry at that—without developing one's own craft. Reading both the full-length manuscripts and the individual poems submitted for the journal force me not just to consider but often to express—and clearly—the qualities I value in a poem. Sometimes, it's easy to make cuts: a poet hasn't honed the craft enough or is sending out work before it's ready; a poet can't be bothered to read the guidelines; a writer—and this lack of basic give-a-shittedness amazes me every time—submits fiction or creative non-fiction to our all-poetry journal; a poem is strong but in a style or mode that I don't appreciate (in which case I pass it along to Caron, who makes the call—it helps that she and I often have different aesthetics); a poem is, for whatever reason, simply not the right fit for us.

Other times, it's more difficult. If a poem loses me as a reader, where does it happen, and why? I care about both clarity and mystery, and that can be a delicate balance, like climbing a cliff—if there isn't enough on the page to give me a handhold, I'm going to fall; if there's too much on the page, I'm going to get bored and jump just so I have something to do. Like this hypothetical cliff-climbing, I'm happy to work, as long as it's not work the poet should have done for me. I'm happy to be trusted as a reader, but that trust is not a one-way proposition: I also need to trust the poet as a writer. For example, if a poem is written in sentences—that is, if it generally conforms to the rules of English rather than taking liberties for artistic effect—I'm going to care about grammar. I want my poets to know the difference between lie and lay, between lightning and lightening (an error I didn't realize was so common until the year I spent editing a long-gone journal called The Lightning Bell), between every day and everyday. Can I overlook one if the poem is great? Yes, but I'm going to ask the poets to change it in print, and I can probably tell myself it's a typo even though I know deep in my liver that it's not. Can I overlook more than one? Odds aren't good, my friends. Not good at all.

I want surprise. I want a new take on the world. I want to be moved. I want to feel something—almost anything besides irritation or ennui will do. I want to keep reading. I want to be compelled to read a single poem again, to read the next poem in the manuscript, to read the manuscript again. And let's be honest—I end up reading the winning manuscript over and over again during the editorial process. I want a manuscript that I'll love just as much, if not more, when it goes to print as I did when I opened the file (or the envelope containing the hard copy) the first time. These qualities are difficult to itemize. What, exactly, goes into making a surprise? And how does a poet strike the balance between "surprise" and "gotcha—look how clever I am"? How does one poem about a mother dying in a hospital leave me bored and another leave me moved?

More than anything else, I've come to believe that it's a matter of deliberateness. I want every move a poet makes to feel deliberate (for that matter, I want every writer to feel deliberate as well, which pulls a lot of "but the plot is so good!" fiction off the market for me. Ugh. Sorry, Dan Brown). I know this is a fallacy—poetry is an art, and the creation real art often involves accidents. So there's a deliberate quality to the poet's choices—to make a sonnet that conforms to the traditional rules of a sonnet, say, or one that breaks the rules and still resonates within the form; to break the conventions of grammar; to arrange a manuscript in a certain way; to encourage or force me to leap with the poet if I want to keep my footing (man, do I love when that happens well). But poets also need a deliberate quality to their accidents—the accidents need to feel intentional once the final poem or manuscript is on the page. If you've ever heard Faulkner's advice that you must kill all your darlings, I suspect this is what he was talking about: the beautiful lines that don't fit, the places where we fall in love with the sound of our own voice, the image that maybe sparked a poem but no longer feels essential. These places often begin as accidents. The deliberation comes in when we decide whether that accident fits in a way that will help us illuminate the poem in revision, in a way that strengthens the poem.

And here's where we come to the this-shouldn't-matter-but-it-does-it-really-really-does section of this particular post: your entire submission should feel deliberate.

Look. We all make mistakes. We address a cover letter to the wrong person or reference the wrong publication. We think we've attached the poems as requested but forgot to double-check and have to send an oh-my-goodness-I'm-sorry-I'm-such-an-idiot email with the poems attached (hint: attach the poems first, poets. Always add the attachment before you compose the email). We send simultaneous submissions to publications that don't accept them. That sort of thing happens, and, unless the editor is a total douchebag, it's generally all right. Avoid it if you can, because you want to be the kind of poet who makes an editor's life easier, not more difficult. But if you pay careful attention to your submissions in general, the very occasional error, handled professionally, will slide right by.

Submissions to the most recent CPR Book Award recently closed, and Caron and I have been reading a lot of manuscripts. Hundreds. And I've realized in recent days how grateful I am to the poets who pay attention to the things I list below. Please note that violating these tips won't—usually—get a manuscript pulled from consideration. But following them might help it rise a little closer to the top. Editors are generally doing this work out of love—I don't pull a paycheck from CPR, and neither do the vast majority of editors out there. We're doing this work because we love it. When poets follow this advice, I generally don't notice. But I do notice when they ignore it. So here is what I do, when sending out my own manuscript, to try to be the kind of poet editors want to work with:

·         I proofread the manuscript, and then I proofread it again. Then I send it to someone else (or multiple someones else) to proofread. And then I proofread it again, often by reading it out loud. And something will probably still slip by, but I will have caught the others. The result? A manuscript that looks—say it with me now—deliberate instead of half-assed, one where the typo is clearly a typo because the rest of the manuscript is so carefully assembled. One that the editors know they won't have to do a lot of fiddly work with should they accept it. If you're not good with grammar, ask a grammatically inclined friend to read it before you send it out. If you miss your own typos, send it to someone who won't.

·         I follow the guidelines. If a press wants two—or three, or fifty—cover pages, that's what I send them. If the editors want the cover page with my identifying information clipped to the manuscript, I clip it. If they want it separate from the manuscript, I don’t clip it. I read the guidelines as I assemble my submission, and then I read them again. Most publishers fall into two categories: ones who read blind and ones who don't. I keep two versions of my manuscript on file. One is anonymous and has no identifying information. The other has two cover sheets, one with my name and contact information and one with just the title of the book. It's not rocket science—the editors have reasons for asking what they ask, so just follow their guidelines. It's also the first impression you make with an editor. Follow. The. Guidelines.

·         I follow the editors' preferences. This is slightly different from the advice about guidelines, above. A preference often isn't presented as clearly as a guideline. If they accept both online and mailed submissions, but state a preference—in any way—for one or the other, that's the way I go. One publisher might suggest that online submissions save postage and trees. Another might charge a higher fee for online submissions, to cover the cost of printing and/or the submissions management software. One might state outright that they're old-school, or that they read the submissions in hard copy, gathered around a table. Another might begrudgingly include a mailing address. Whatever they seem to (or clearly) prefer, that's what I go with. Remember: it's about making their lives easier.

·         I include full contact information. We recently received a manuscript—via post—that didn't include a full return address anywhere on it. Not on the envelope, not on the manuscript itself, not on the check. There was no state or zip code listed, no email, and the phone number didn't include an area code. If you're submitting online and the guidelines request an anonymous manuscript, upload an anonymous manuscript—the submission manager software will keep everything straight, can be set so that your personal information isn't visible to the readers (at CPR, our submissions manager puts the word "blind" in the author field for us), and then can be reset so that the personal information reappears. If you're submitting a hard copy, make sure your contact information appears somewhere.

·         I don't wait until the last day of the submission period. Editors are often trying to keep ahead of the pile of submissions—by sending in my manuscript a couple of weeks early (or earlier than that, if time and budget allow), I'm giving them a chance to read my manuscript at their leisure, rather than as one of a sometimes overwhelmingly huge stack of manuscripts. Yes, it means a longer wait for a response. But think a minute. What reader would you rather have: one who needs to get on to the next manuscript and the next and the next (and who has quite possibly already read several before getting to yours) or one who's relaxed, maybe sipping a cup of coffee, who's feeling good about herself because she's able to get some work done ahead of the onslaught? That's what I thought.

·         I pay the reading fee, if there is one. Small presses function on their reading fees, because so many poets are more interested in getting published than in actually reading poems (which…um…think about it. If you aren't reading poems, who the hell do you think will want to read yours?). Fees pay for printing, and for shipping copies of the winning book to all the entrants, and for getting the winning book out to reviewers, award committees, and such. Fees do not—and I can personally assure you of this—buy the editors fancy cars. Or, usually, lunch. If you have every intention of paying the fee, but just don't have the time to do it now, stop. You don't have time to submit. Don't make an editor hunt you down for a reading fee. You're taking up time that could be better spent reading your poems.

·         I buy a book, if I can. If the reading fee covers my choice of a book, I choose one. If a contest comes with two versions of a reading fee—a slightly lower one that's just for the contest and a higher one that includes the (often discounted) price of a book, I choose the higher one and get a book. This won't make me more popular, or make my manuscript receive better consideration. It just makes me a better poet because I'll be reading more. And THAT will make me more popular, and make my next manuscript receive better consideration.

·         I learned how to format a table of contents. And I'm now a wizard. If you're a friend of mine, I'll format your TOC for free. It will take me 10 minutes, and you will be able to alter it at will. I learned this valuable skill in an expensive and time-consuming way and it will require seven years of your life to perfect, like becoming a surgeon or a top-level athlete. Oh, wait. None of that is true. I just googled "make a table of contents in Word" and learned how to do it. It looks a thousand times more professional. And yes, the twits at Microsoft change how it works every few years (this is, for the record, the third time I've become a wizard at formatting a TOC because it's never the same process, so when you do your googling, you might want to include which version of the software you're using). And yes, the tool is really not designed for poetry manuscripts. Get over it.

·         I trust the reader (in this case, the editorial staff). I recently read a manuscript that included footnotes explaining everything. I don't want to get into specifics, so I'm going to make up an example that is really not too far off. If my hypothetical manuscript contains several references to my visits to Italy, I might include a note that explains that a title of one of my poems is taken from a museum card describing the Laocoon of Rome (it's a sculpture—just work with me here). I will most emphatically not include a note explaining that lasagna is an Italian dish that layers pasta with any number of other ingredients, often—but not always—including meat, cheese, or vegetables and some kind of sauce. I especially won't do so if the poem allows a reader to understand the definition of that word through context. Don't be that guy, poets. Just don't. I know you think I'm exaggerating for effect here. I assure you I am not.

·         I'm polite. Thank you for your time and consideration takes about 2 seconds to type into the "comments" field of a submission manager. When I received word that my new manuscript was short-listed at the first publisher it went to (yay, me!), I sent an email back, thanking them for letting me know and thanking them again for their time and consideration. Again, this won't take my manuscript any further in the competition (and I'll know in the next couple of weeks whether it's made it into the top 6 and, therefore, is going to the judge, so go ahead and cross those fingers for me), but it makes me a better poet citizen. Should my manuscript get chosen somewhere, the editors will already know what kind of a poet I'll be to work with. I'll be the kind of poet who wants to make their lives easier (where have we heard this before?) and as a result, I'll feel confident in standing my ground should we disagree about some aspect of the book.

Here's what it really boils down to: turning this manuscript into a book is not about me. Writing the poems? That can be about me. Arranging them? Sure (although I have advice for that, too, I'm going to save it for another post because this one is already far too long and there's also a plethora of advice—often contradictory—about arranging manuscripts out there on the internet). Making decisions about the final content and quality of the book, should it get that far? Absolutely. But before I can get to that last step, some wise editor needs to agree to publish the manuscript. Someone needs to see what I see in it or, with luck, see more than I see in it. And in that sense, turning the manuscript into a book is about the editor, not the poet. Be a good poet, yes. Be the best damn poet you can muster. But also, be a good prospect. Will it make the difference between getting your book published or not? Probably not. But can it help get you to the top of the slush pile? Absolutely.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Up Too Early Edition

1. the fact that Butler isn't really sick, just anxious about the housefly*
2. caffeine
3. beginning the semester wrap-up today
4. thinking about how big a tree I can talk Jed into this year
5. comfy-warm socks
*don't ask

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bonus: One of the Dear Turquoise Poems

I'm ridiculously pleased to have one of my Dear Turquoise poems up at Redheaded Stepchild, one of my favorite online journals. Take a peek if you like. And I've got a new post ready to go up here on the blog soon--probably tomorrow.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Last (?) Day of Grading for Fall '13 Edition

1. the magic of math, whereby grading 1 extra paper yesterday means I grade 2 fewer today than yesterday*
2. giant cups of foamy coffee
3. the vaguely inappropriate coffee mug my sister-in-law sent from South Korea one Christmas
4. making pumpkin bread for the writing faculty**
5. Aqib Talib
*It's sad that yelling "Math!" is nowhere near as much fun as yelling "Science!" but there ya go. It's still more fun than not yelling anything.
**Shh! Don't tell them! I do it every year, but we need to pretend it's a surprise!