Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Marion Wrenn, Painted Bride Quarterly
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 for their frank thoughts on why poems may get accepted/rejected from their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Marion Wrenn, Co-Editor of Painted Bride Quarterly.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Marion Wrenn: As a reader, I love when a poem’s craft makes me trust that the poet is up to something. Something witty, smart, fierce, funny, urgent—something that’s about two steps ahead of my sense of the poem or the story or the essay—so that when I arrive at the end I’m caught up in this tremendously pleasurable, table-smacking, “wait, whoa; hey, how the? What the? Oh, hell yes!”
Craft is an invitation. It’s a way to signal to your reader that you’ve figured out a way to express what you’ve discovered – even if it’s merely an echo, a pattern, a resonance in the world worth noting, worth making me pay attention to with you. And this manner of expression you’ve crafted? It imagines my experience. “Craft,” then, enacts a kind of intimacy.
What if we think of craft as a wink, a flirt?
Side note: I write under the influence of Roland Barthes here—who wrote about “plaisir” (the pleasures of recognizing how things work) and “jouissance” (the kind of pleasure/threat/bliss involved in not-knowing, when you are on the edge and unsure). When I can detect how a poem is made– and simultaneously root for the poet as she takes expressive risks—well, I’m in.
Finely crafted poems make a do-it-again desire rise in me and I think that’s because of the pleasure of recognizing the poet’s choices. Which is also to say: some of the best craft choices seem artless. And it’s in that seeming artless-ness that a poem comes across as somehow both effortless and simultaneously audacious. Complexity – and its design—sits on the back of the tongue, delayed, delicious. If it’s on the nose and too obvious, I’m not interested. If it’s a “closed system,” as my friend the writer Richard Larson puts it, if it’s one that “locks me out” or makes sense only to the author, I get grumpy and faithless and will likely stop reading. As a reader, I like to work a little bit, and I love to be rewarded for the practice of reading (and re-reading).
A quick word about my duplicity and fuzzy language here. That “something” I refer to above? Not exactly helpful, right? “Something” is a placeholder meant to capture the way it feels for this reader when form and idea fuse in great poems. And, yup, there’s another one: “idea” is a placeholder, too. By “idea” I mean the poem’s preoccupation, its insight, the discovery it holds out for me to take, to consider, to receive. It’s a cliché to say that form should serve a poem’s idea—that image, rhythm, line breaks, all of it, should resonate, reverberating toward the “sound of sense.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. But I’m not saying that all things have to correspond so tightly that there’s no work for the reader to do. I find myself saying “yes” to poems that feel like writer has discovered “something” and uses craft to stage the drama of that understanding so that it seems as if I participate in that discovery right along with her. When that happens, it feels like a magic trick. Smoke and mirrors and muses.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Marion Wrenn: Read. Write. Revise. Repeat.
And find your tribe.
A writers’ group can be one of the most powerful and transformative gifts you can give yourself as an artist. Find folks to write alongside you; find writers to read or listen to your work; build a community of people whose work you trust and who you trust with yours. Literary friendships can sustain you in surprising ways.
Plus: do readings. And submit. Do both. A lot. It takes time and effort to find a place for your work, to find an audience. And you never know how that connection will be forged. Someone might hear your work at a reading and solicit you. Or your work might cut through the clutter of a slush pile, land in an editor’s in box, catch her eye, move her, and she’ll recommend the piece for publication. You won’t know unless you try.
You might also try this: read poetry strategically. Find the poets whose work you admire most. Buy their books. Or go to the local library and borrow them. As you try to figure out why you’re moved by the poet’s work, you’ll be honing your craft and figuring out how you might characterize your own poems. Then, if you think your voice or style or project resonates with the poet you’ve found, flip to the end of the book and see where those poems were first published. Make a list. Submit to these magazines.
And, finally, listen to podcasts! Check out PBQ’s “The Slush Pile” for a real-time glimpse of our editorial process.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
Marion Wrenn: My first response to this was glib: revision.
My second answer is a more generous: metaphor. I love metaphors. Or, rather, I love the way it feels to read a well-crafted metaphor.
In “Essay on What I Think About Most” (in Men in the Off Hours), Anne Carson paraphrases Aristotle who “says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself / in the act of making a mistake.” She goes on to write that
Metaphors teach the mind
To enjoy error
From the juxtaposition of what is and is not the case.
I love this configuration: it’s a great description of what a metaphor can do to a reader. Personally, I like to think of this feeling as a “(r)epiphany”: a moment of awareness so intense – triggered by an image so fresh and apt– that it all seems familiar, like you could swear it’s something you already knew but somehow forgot you’d know it.
All that to say, “Essay on What I Think About Most” is a great poem about craft.
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
Marion Wrenn: Instead of answering about my own writing life (since I spend far more time working as an editor and educator than as an author), I’ll tell you about what I’ve learned by reading, accepting, and rejecting poems for PBQ for more than 25 years.
Obviously, acceptances are a joy for the writer— but they are also a joy for the editors. It’s a delight to celebrate great poems with publication and to welcome emerging and established poets to PBQ. The rejections are obviously tougher—for both writers and editors. I don’t mean that to sound like a “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” kind of nonsense. I mean: PBQ spends an inordinate amount of time reading each submission it gets. Each piece is read by 3 editors. We make notes and keep track of our comments in Submittable. If a piece makes it to the editorial table, it is then read and considered by our editorial team. Now let’s say a piece makes it that far but is then rejected. Our system is set up so that the author receives a form rejection letter. That letter comes nowhere near capturing our gratitude for the author having submitted to us, for having waited patiently for a response, and it flat-out erases all of the labor that went into that rejection: labor that amounts to an extended posse of PBQs staffers and editors taking their time with your work. Reading your work carefully. Taking it in. Looking at your craft. Considering the piece for publication.
“The Slush Pile” (our podcast) is PBQ’s attempt to pull the veil back on that process. We invite listeners to the editorial table, so to speak, where they can listen in as we read, discuss, and vote on poems submitted to PBQ.
Does your publication seek out specific styles or aesthetics of poetry that writers/ submitters should know about?
Marion Wrenn: PBQ does not showcase a single style, aesthetic, or editorial vision. Instead, we’ve been dedicated to celebrating voices (plural) since the magazine was founded in 1973. As a result, we cultivate a deeply democratic editorial process at PBQ. This means that the votes of our most junior staff readers are as valuable as our most senior editors.
Readers can catch that literary-critical democracy in action on our podcast, The Slush Pile, where our editorial staff convenes to discuss –and vote on –submissions. Part reality-TV competition, part literary criticism, the show is meant to give listeners a back-stage glimpse of what goes on in our editorial meetings. You’ll hear us engage in some seriously old-school slow-reading in a new-media forum. And you can hear the way we help each other see and re-see the poems we’re considering. This is the part of our editorial process I cherish—and it’s been essentially invisible to outsiders until our podcast.
Listen for Tim Fitts’ insistence on the necessity of radiant images in poetry and fiction. Or for Jason Schneiderman’s companionable genius as he explicates the poems that delight or frustrate him. And don’t miss the indomitable Kathleen Volk Miller– essayist, memoirist, and literary-editor extraordinaire– as she hosts our far-flung, close-knit crew on each show. I learn from their insights every time we sit down to compare notes.
What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets? (And why?)
Marion Wrenn: Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist. Pamuk writes beautifully about the readers’ experience and the author’s role in crafting fiction. He does a remarkable job of explaining the risks and delights involved in being a “naïve” or “sentimental” reader – and writer—of novels. He borrows these terms Schiller (who was writing about poets): the “naïve” writer writes spontaneously, effortlessly, without the weight of “craft” or “revision” to burden her. The “sentimental” writer is supremely self-aware, hyper-analytical, and devoted to technical excellence. Pamuk’s advice is to aim for the middle, find the balance between the two extremes, and trust that “the novel” is something the reader experiences. The novel comes alive in the mysterious chemistry triggered by the author’s words and the reader’s imagination. The same applies to poetry— where craft isn’t merely a set of rules to master but a set of tools to create an intellectual/emotional/aesthetic experience for the reader (and the writer).
And tune in for an episode of The Slush Pile—where you’ll hear our editors read, discuss, and decide on poems submitted to PBQ!
Wrenn is a media critic and a cultural historian who loves poems, essays and creative non-fiction. She earned her Ph.D. from NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication and has received grants and awards from NYU, the AAUW, and the Rockefeller Archive Center. She is completing her book Inventing Warriors, the story of America’s Cold War initiative to reorient international journalists.
She is also working on Miss Recognition, a collection of essays about media, memory, and the way misrecognition can sometimes lead to deeper knowledge and insight. Her essays have appeared in Poetics, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She has taught writing at Princeton University and currently directs the Writing Program at NYU Abu Dhabi.