On Editing:  A Modest Proposal for Poetry Magazines

Here’s something I don’t believe:  That the real purpose of editorial committees is to bring fairness to the process.  I think the real purpose of editorial committees is to spread the blame for failure so that no one has to take responsibility.

Any editor knows that every issue of every magazine is a testament to failure at some level—some wonderful but odd poem not published, some deserving author overlooked, some grand opportunity for comment or article not seized.  It comes with the territory.  If you can’t bear failure, and if you can’t understand that recognizing your failure is the price you pay for improving, then you’d best pick a different occupation or avocation:  you shouldn’t be an editor, you don’t have the nerves or the vision or the stamina for it.

What prompts this reflection is a note on one of the more prominent poetry magazines publishing today, that the editors are trying to speed up their response times, and expect to be able to respond to submissions within seven months.

Seven months!  Are you kidding me?

If seven months is your idea of good editorship, then let me say again:  Go do something else.  Really.  Become a trash collector, or house painter, where the object of your attention is limited to a single object for a specified period of time, and you get to go home at night and not worry about tomorrow until tomorrow; but get the hell out of editing.

I think an editor has several important tasks and constituencies, and that to fail at achieving any one of them is to fail at all of them.

I will, for the sake of this piece, limit myself to discussing editing poetry magazines, but the points made here can apply more broadly to other publications.

There are two main groups that an editor has responsibility to.  One is the readers and one is the contributors.  That’s easy enough to understand.  There are also the funders, the private donors and the grants foundations, and their needs can sometimes be a little eccentric; but by and large while their specific needs are narrower than those of the other two groups (a project, a mission, a celebration, a remembrance are not unusual), their general needs are the same, and those are:  a good product and good treatment of the people who create the content.

So, then, the first of the major editorial goals is the obvious one:  to publish the best work you can lay your hands on.  This may not be limited to what comes over the transom, it may include things you solicit, run into accidentally, see on social media:  source matters less than effect.  Your job is to find the best.

Second goal is to be varied.  In the old old days, when I first started writing and dinosaurs still roamed the planet, it was possible to parody the poems of certain magazines, because every poem in those magazines was basically the same:  same affect, same syllable count, line length, vowel sounds, almost the same metaphors and subject matter.  Everyone knew what a Field poem was, or a Poetry Northwest poem, and to some extent, even a kayak poem.  They had gone beyond the place where magazine poem selections end; they had become genres.

I count that an editorial sin, unless there is a point to the monomania:  One might argue that Blast magazine, with its focus on vorticism, had to limit appearances.  But that magazine, like Bly’s Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies magazine, was not a magazine, it was a crusade, with important points to make.  The purpose of those magazines was not to publish poetry, or at least not merely to publish poetry; the purpose was to change the world.

Goal three is to have a personality.  I can imagine the  reader asking, Hunh?  What I mean is that blandness, sameness, and dull null predictability are the enemy of a good publication.  “It’s just boring” is a criticism I never want to hear about a mag that I edit.  Or, “It’s just like all the rest of the mags around”:  Jeepers!  No!  Be what you are, and be what you are with intention.  Quirky is good, identifiably responsive is wonderful.

Now, where goals one to three have focused on responsibility to readers, the fourth is about the responsibility editors owe to authors.  Its is a big responsibility, and no less in importance than the others, possibly more important, for it makes the others possible at the level of their supposed ethos.

Follow me on this:

I believe that many magazines treat authors like cattle:  Let them wait in line chewing their cuds for their little bit of attention, that may come in a month, two months, seven months, and then give them an acceptance, or reject them in a form letter.

After so much delay, even acceptance feels like an afterthought, like O yeah, about your poems…

This is scandal, and frankly, it is inexcusable.  Either poetry is a great art practiced by people who mean it, or it is the equivalent of doodling on paper during too long committee meetings, distractions from distraction, so that no one, least of all editors, has to take it seriously.

“Seriously,” in these terms, means that you accept that the sender of the work is a professional, who has labored to create the work, and has sent it to your publication, which he or she respects, in order to share it with the world in a proper and appropriate home.

Respect to such an author—and we assume that all authors are like this—means that the author gets a decision quickly, which means in a week if possible, and no more than a month if not.

If that’s not what you believe, then why are you editing a poetry magazine?  Your ethos is that the publication of such work is important, but your practice insults  your ethos.

I don’t suggest that publication is the most important, or any, aspect of the creation of a work—creation is, of course.  But editors need to be modest about this:  They have nothing to do with creation; they are editors, they are editing a magazine whose sole purpose is to bring creative work to a wider readership.

Editors have a responsibility to writers, to treat the works seriously, and expeditiously.  To respond on a professional’s timeline, and not to treat the work on an amateur’s basis, as if it was a matter of giving what little time I have between reading comic books for this minor activity of editing today.

In opting for speed, might you miss something?  Yes, just as in slowness you will miss something, because that’s the nature of editorship:  You will fail.  You cannot help yourself.  And spreading responsibility out through committees of readers doesn’t change that, it only spreads out the failure, and changes the causes of that failure from one person to several.

Diffusion does not solve the problems of inclusion or exclusion, of balance, of merit.  In fact, I could argue that it does the opposite, for it reduces willingness to risk, to chance, to trust one’s own odd and eccentric eureka-moment taste.  It is not too much to say that it is a moral lapse at a personal level.

Finally, this:  I believe that one or two person editorship is much to be desired over committeeship.  Not only because it is potentially faster, but also because it allows for the imprint of a personality or a character—all right, of a taste—on the magazine, identifiable to a single person, than whom if the controlling board  desires a change, it can change.  But at least the board, and the mag’s readers, know who is in charge, and what the taste is, and possibly even the reasons why this or that editorial decision is being made.  I like, that is, the look of a kayak under Hitchcock, of Bly’s multi-named mag, of the old Poetry.  And so I make this assertion:  That single person editorship in this sense is more transparent than editorship by committee.

And I think readers innately and intuitively prefer it.  Our preference in this country for ascribing guilt or blame or praise, is to single out the individual—the corporate chief, the president, the university chancellor.  We do that, I think, because of our sense that acts or failures of morality are always individualized in the end, we believe that they are committed by one person, who may order others, but one person has the responsibility in the end.  No one has to say this to us; it’s how we think, how we talk about such things.  It is an intuitive sense of how things work.  It’s what we prefer, and how we practice our preference in speech and discussion.

What strange mental and moral twist, then, got anyone to think that a committee of anonymities is a better guarantor of merit or balance than an individual?  That a bureaucracy better encapsulates merit than an individual?  That delay is virtue?  It’s a mistake in the logic of morality to think so.  There is a great old Communist era joke:  At a Moscow meeting of the Union of Socialist Writers, one regional representative gives a buoyant report: “In our region, Soviet literature has made astounding progress. Today, we have no fewer than 277 writers producing literature full-time, whereas in backward Czarist times the region could claim only one: Leo Tolstoy.”

This is a plea to dispense with the committees, take up responsibility, and pick up the speed.  The good editor will find the Tolstoy, the Hopkins, the Donne; and the committee will level taste until such notables disappear and never find publication, and we are all the poorer for it.

PS — There is one other argument I understand, which is about overwork, that there are too many submissions to refer all to one or two to three people; but there is a way to handle that problem also, which is to shut down submissions for some months every year to a level that a small group can handle expeditiously.  There.  Problem solved.  Authors still treated with respect.   You’re welcome.

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