Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Melissa Crowe, Beloit Poetry Journal
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 Melissa Crowe, Co-Editor of Beloit Poetry Journal.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Melissa Crowe: I read for a certain feeling, a kind of electricity. I feel that scalp tingle when I don’t know exactly what the poem is doing but I have a sense it’s doing something different/surprising/important. I know I’m going to have to be my smartest self to understand it more fully, but something about the poem makes me believe the effort will be worthwhile. I’d say that’s where craft comes in. I’m looking for some combination of music and mystery. I’m listening for a real-seeming, particular, and urgent voice talking to me. I’m alert to fresh use of language, an exciting relationship between formal choices and content. I want wisdom but not didacticism—a wisdom that arises in the poem, that’s born there, that seems like it’s born through my own act of reading. Maybe we’d call this immediacy? I want to feel like the poem needs not just any reader but me specifically. I like to feel, as a reader, like I—with my body, my senses, my memories, my methods of perception—am integral to the fruition of the poem.
The poems I’m moved to accept feel honest. They feel moral, not because they stay out of ethical messes but because they move right on into them with open eyes and hearts. They implicate themselves. They may implicate me. They tell me something I didn’t expect—maybe even didn’t want—to hear, but they make me know I need to hear it. They’re complex, layered. They seem to have been arrived at through experiment, through risk, and I mean emotional and intellectual risk as well as formal risk. They don’t seem canned or written by someone who had a foregone conclusion in mind though they are finely wrought, made with care. They hold up to several readings, and I keep moving further into their worlds. They keep surprising me. I want to read them again and again. I want to publish them to make it possible for other people to have this experience.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Melissa Crowe: I’d love for new poets to know that editors aren’t in the business of rejecting poems; I’m not looking for poems I can single out for a hard no, not reading for failure to live up to a list of predetermined requirements. In some ways this may sound like bad news; if I did have an explicit and nameable list of moves that would get you the gong, maybe you could avoid them and be assured a yes. But the reason the absence of this set of irredeemable missteps is good news for poets is that the poem tells me what I want. I’m waiting for your poems to tell me something about what makes me love poetry. I’m reading wide open. I want to be engaged, moved, surprised, rearranged, and I read in faith that I will be. When I am, I choose that poem (or, given our process at the BPJ, I choose to share that poem with my colleagues, to see if they’ll choose it, too, to see if we’ll choose it together). At that point I haven’t rejected the others in an active or pointed sense. I just haven’t chosen them—right now, for this magazine.
This may seem like a slim and sorry distinction, but it’s big for me as a poet who submits work, too. Everyone who didn’t marry me didn’t single me out for non-love! It’s just that only my beloved chose me—and that’s what it’s about, in life as in poetry. It’s about who does choose you! If you can manage to spend less time feeling rejected by the others, you’ve got more time and energy and faith to spend on finding the ones that will choose and champion your work because it’s truly, truly for them.
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
Melissa Crowe: Oh, my. I don’t think I can quantify them, but there have been so, so many. I’ve been writing seriously since I was a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, and that’s when I started sending poems out. Not a single poem was accepted during my MFA, and I think I had three acceptances during my time in the Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia. Back then, if I sent out a poem and somebody “rejected” it, not only did I never send more poems to that magazine; I never sent that poem anywhere else. I thought a single no was a cosmic no and a no forever. This makes me want to go back in time and both hug and strangle my younger self. Really only the experience of being an editor has convinced me of the complete wrongheadedness of my previous attitude. I’ve published some twenty-year-old poems in the past few years because I’ve resurrected them from my “dead” pile now that I understand the marketplace better.
I still feel disappointed when a magazine or a press doesn’t decide to publish something I send for their consideration—I want a 100% yes rate as much as everybody else does. But I know this is unrealistic; I know editors appreciate far more work than they can publish, and I’ve now had enough yeses to believe I’m probably not completely terrible. So my new policy is that when I sit down at the computer and find that I’ve received a pass on something, I submit it to another magazine before I stand up from the chair. And I shake off the disappointment in about the same amount of time—because I’ve already started looking forward to the next possible yes.
Crowe is a poet and a co-editor of Beloit Poetry Journal. Her first full-length collection, Dear Terror, Dear Splendor will appear from University of Wisconsin Press in the spring of 2019. She is also a lecturer in Poetry and Coordinator of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at UNCW.