Editors Talk Poetry Rejections: Kwame Dawes, Prairie Schooner

As a platform for emerging poets, our mission is to provide practical help for serious writers. The community lifts itself up together or not at all. In that light, we’ve been asking some great editors from around the literary community about reasons for why poems may get declined from their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Kwame Dawes, the Glenna Luschei Editor-in-Chief of Prairie Schooner.


What common mistakes are you seeing in the recent season of submission?  

Kwame Dawes: To be honest, I would not characterize much that comes to us via Submittable as “mistakes”.  Virtually every submission we get adheres to the basic rules, and frankly, I think people are fairly conscientious about such matters.  They care about their work and we appreciate that, so we try to treat the work we get with respect.  The rare writer may submit far more poems that we ask them to.  The rare fiction writer might send a whole novel.  But those are so rare that it is not worth mentioning here.  We like to say that people would do well to read our journal before submitting.  But I honestly can’t tell if they have or have not.  And I can’t claim that the work we reject is rejected because it clearly does not fit into our “aesthetic” because our “aesthetic” is not terribly obvious.  At best, the message we try to send is, “Give it a shot”.  Obvious things matter:  spelling, consistent decisions about grammar and style, professionalism.  Yes, those matter, but we don’t spend time discussing the superficial matters around submissions.  If the work is compelling, interesting, accomplished, we start to pay attention.  If it isn’t, we pass. “Mistakes”?  Can’t think of anything I would call a mistake. I can say that we do not look favorably on simultaneous submissions.  By this I mean it is rare that after we are told that a poem we have selected in a packet has already been taken, that we accept anything else from that packet.  We are only human.  But if we have been delinquent in responding in a timely manner within the guidelines we publicly announce, we do apologize and seek to be decent about it.  But we still don’t like cavalier attitudes to simultaneous submissions.  


What is the simplest way these mistakes can be fixed?

Kwame Dawes: Oh, dear, well, if one can discern mistakes in the above, then the solution is “Don’t do that”.  I am not be trite or flippant.  More often than not, any such mistakes can be solved by not making them.  Bad spelling?  Spell properly.  If we say no simultaneous submissions, and you decide to do simultaneous submissions, then in the future, don’t do that.  We do not have a “black list” of naughty writers.  We forget who has submitted once a quarterly cycle is over.  If you plagiarize and we find out, we are more careful next time.  How to fix that.  Don’t plagiarize.  Don’t submit simultaneously.  


What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets? 

Kwame Dawes: Because I teach, I have a long list of books that I recommend for poets—craft books.  But I can’t say that these are at the top of my list of recommended books for professional poets.  I do think that poets from the US should have read Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town.  It is a fine contradictory book full of splendid and not so splendid ideas, but blessed with the attitude of a practicing poet who is skeptical of his own advise.  It is a lovely thing to see.  I also recommend Pound’s ABC of Reading because it is so annoying, so rich with stuff we must all disagree with, and so full of itself that it forces us to develop our own intelligence of what is valuable in poetry.  At the end of it, even Pound concurs that he is full of crap, and that, I find to be quite illuminating.  But I recommend it because it is clear that he believes in reading.  These are rather obvious, of course.  But the best learning a poet gets is ion reading poetry.  Books on craft are helpful, but reading poetry, work from around the world, from all ages, from all periods, that is what allows us to read with confidence those “authorities”.  And so when it comes to books I find myself recommending often, two come to mind: Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants, and Ntosake Shange’s for colored girls who have consider suicide when the rainbow is enuf.


Kwame Dawes is the author of twenty books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. In 2016 his book, Speak from Here to There, a co-written collection of verse with Australian poet John Kinsella appeared.  His most recent collection, City of Bones: A Testament (Northwestern University Press) will appear in 2017. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and teaches at the University of Nebraska and the Pacific MFA Program.  He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival.

Often called ‘the busiest man in literature’, Kwame will celebrate the publication of eight new books in 2016-2017.


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