Notes from the Slush: Reader Thoughts
The readers of Frontier Poetry are just like you—beautiful poets—& eager for community, for the sharpening iron, for poems on poems on poems. For this Notes, we’ve reached out to a few—Maribel, Matt, Afua, Brandon, Charika, Lynley and Abeir—and got their thoughts on reading, writing, and joining the larger community.
On reading for a magazine…
Maribel Pagan: Through my time working for Frontier Poetry (about 8 months now), I have noticed how my poetry has shifted drastically. While I was searching before on how to perfect the craft, my time at Frontier Poetry has changed this viewpoint. Now, I’ve found myself searching through my soul for those bits and pieces drifting through my heart, sifting through word after word, before I pick up my pen and jot them down on paper. After it’s jotted down, I scour through it, finding out how to strengthen the piece. Without Frontier Poetry, I don’t think I would have been able to improve my poetry at the rate I find myself improving, especially since I only really began writing poetry less than three years ago. It has taught me how to search through the depths of my heart and write from the hidden parts of myself. And that is all because of you, poets, who submit and reveal the depths of your hearts to us regularly.
Matt Koucky: Reading submissions for a magazine has helped me identify, in my own poetry, what works and what doesn’t work. One of the most important parts of that is learning the distinction between “publishable” and “good” — to be publishable, a poem has to be not only good, it has to do or be something I haven’t seen before, something new. A poem might have important things to say, even, but if it doesn’t say them skillfully — that is, childlike — I can’t vote “yes” on it.
Afua Ansong: Being a reader has forced me to think a lot about first lines and how a poem moves me. Certainly I become more compassionate because I consider that as a writer, someone else is also reading my poem and considering it for publication. I have noticed that the best poems usually invite you in warmly. What literally drives a poem is how it begins and if the pace is not thorough I am easily lost. Because I usually have a lot of submissions to read through, I think not only about whether the poem is good on its own but how it will represent the journal. I also think of how it will engage with the other poems that will potentially be published. Even if the final decision is not up to me, I still consider my selection to represent me. So somehow I am sending my poem to be judged and I am a little heart broken when the poem I choose to move forward is not a finalist or doesn’t win. I love reading blind because a good poem always sells itself and I like being surprised by the author’s bio.
Brandon Brown: The world of submitting for publication can be so mysterious and daunting, especially for new writers. If anything, reading for a journal steadily reminds me that magazines are run by normal folks. (As one of these “normal folks,” I can attest to the truth of this statement.) It’s nice to remember that the people reading your work aren’t floating heads full of criticism and lofty theory. While experience and knowledge of the genre certainly help readers in choosing what a journal will publish, it’s nice to step back and remember that the person who says “yes” or “no” to any particular manuscript I submit also probably has a favorite brand of deodorant and once got an F on their To Kill a Mockingbird report in 9th grade.
Charika Swanepoel: One of the biggest realizations I’ve come to as a reader is that poetry is something of a Promethean miracle. It’s been a thought I’ve toyed with all my life, but after serving as reader for some time, I’ve come to believe it like it’s opium.
“If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are and assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves…”.
On practical advice for submitters…
Lynley Edmeades: When submitting, try to do simple things, like make your typography and formatting really tidy; if the copy that I’m reading is clean and consistent, I’ll tend to focus on the work itself, rather than getting distracted by the layout. Also, don’t try and do anything flashy there. Let the poems speak for themselves. Don’t worry about descriptions, dates, or other marginalia that you think might be interesting to the reader. That stuff just gets in the way, in my opinion. Again, if the poems are strong, they need room to shine, and anything else tends to put me off. Try sending a small collection of a few really strong poems, but feel free to put in a few others (if they’re short); often when I’m reading a like to get a “sense” of the voice by reading around several pieces. I would probably only chose those that I feel are strongest, but having a couple of others in there will help me to decide and see those strengths. Finally, avoid epics, unless you’re absolutely sure that it’s amazing. If you have any doubt about a long piece, don’t send it.
Abeir Soukieh: Praaactice. Nothing is fully formed from the beginning, you have to develop a writing style and that requires both reading and writing. It’s also useful to show your work to someone you trust artistically (and, to a certain extent, emotionally).
In terms of the actual writing of a poem, the only rule I’ve sort of always lived by comes from that George Orwell essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’. There are 6 rules Orwell puts forward in this essay but I’m most beholden to the first one;
‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print’.
Ultimately, while certain thoughts and feelings are common to the human experience, the expression of that experience doesn’t have to and really shouldn’t be commonplace. There’s always a different way of saying something so don’t settle for an easy phrase or word.
When looking for a place to submit, take into account your audience (i.e. where you’re sending to). There have been so many times when I’ve read an exceptional poem but I’ve also (albeit grudgingly) understood that the poem would likely be rejected because it didn’t fit in thematically with Frontier. That’s why it’s very important not only to read material that has already been accepted by the publication but also to take into account the About section and the general aims and look and feel of the publication. While Frontier does encompass a broad range of thematic and aesthetic content, it does have its own character and doing some light research into that character will help you identify whether your poem will work coherently in that kind of environment or whether there’s a more suitable home for your poem.
When it comes to a cover letter, I’ve noticed that too little information is never a problem; it’s the opposite of that that you need to be careful about. A key example of too much information in the cover letter would be stating in the cover letter the specific meaning or ‘insight’ of the poem. In other words, opening with something like ‘this poem is about…’ and then proceeding to deconstruct your own poem for the reader. This really happens quite a lot but unless the poem references something obscure or was inspired by an unusual source and it’s actually imperative to be aware of this reference or source for an effective read, it’s best to leave the meaning of the poem to the poem itself and then to trust in the reader’s imagination.
Maribel Pagan: Don’t give up. You may have had work accepted immediately by Frontier Poetry, or you may have submitted work a number of times and have yet to receive an acceptance letter. Continue to find yourself in your heart, and discover what your heart is telling you to write. Dive deep. Never let go of that part that tells you, “I need to write,” because your heart has told you this for a reason. Follow that voice. It will guide you home.
On the poetry community…
Brandon Brown: A network of peers. The myth of the isolated writer needs to be booted into the abyss where it shall henceforth be doomed to remain. Anything good that has ever happened to me as a poet instantly calls to mind the presence of other writers who helped me get whatever it was I was going after. The literary fellowship that completely changed my life (shoutout to PEN America) was the result of two work friends who huddled in a cramped office with me on breaks to do writing prompts (shoutout to Carrian and Donna). Without them, I probably wouldn’t have applied. I was in a steady DIY workshop with a group of writers in LA for over a year who took the time, week after week, to help turn my “poems” into poems (shoutout to Derrick, Jessica, Chelsea, April, and Jeremy). And there are countless other poets from all over I’ve gotten to connect with online. But, like any relationship, it’s only good if it’s authentic, if you’re willing to participate in the life of this community/these communities and give back. Simply being a taker is icky, insincere, and easy to spot. And there are plenty of ways you can give –– writing reviews, providing notes on people’s work if they want it, sharing their poems with others, asking the library to get copies of their books, showing up at readings, etc. While not all these options may be available to all people at all times for any number of reasons, I bet if you take a moment to think through your poetry community (or the one you hope to create and/or engage in), you’ll find a way to participate in a way that feels authentic and sustainable.
Charika Swanepoel: I sometimes still doubt that such a community exists at all but I do feel the need for such a community, intensely so. Poets are a strange people, misfits, heroes, and always awkward. So, they (we) can become immensely isolated especially since the craft necessitates such a hermit-like introspection and an increasingly personal, sometimes lonely life. To my mind, the “poetry community” is largely online and on social media platforms. Many magazines and journals now function exclusively online, it is only natural that poetic support and discussions too, should shift to a digital space. Some argue that the technological advancements of our age leave us more and more disconnected while others believe it to bring us closer than we’ve ever been. Whatever the case may be, we need a poetry community. We’ve always needed one.