Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Rick Barot, New England Review
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 Rick Barot, Poetry Editor of New England Review.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Rick Barot: It’s worth saying first that you can have a poem that has a competent, even elegant use of craft, and yet this poem is lacking in memorability or impact for the reader. There’s something beyond craft that makes a powerful poem powerful. Maybe that something is the alchemy created by what the poem is about, what it’s saying, what led the poet to the page in passionate inquiry and emotion, along with all the craft elements being used in the poem to generate that heightened linguistic experience. Taken individually, these craft elements—whether it’s imagery, figure, music, lineation, syntax, diction, structure, and so on—hold up when you apply hard scrutiny to them. That is, when you get into the weeds of the poem’s mechanics, each craft decision made by the poet has a kind of inevitable rightness to it. But most readers aren’t in the weeds—they’re in that alchemical space where pleasure and mystery are being experienced. When I accept a poem, it’s because I’ve experienced that pleasure and mystery first. Then, on further readings of the poem, I discern all the technical rightnesses that generated the poem’s alchemy
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Read the publications you submit to. If it’s a print journal, seek out issues of that journal and read the work that’s published there. If it’s an online journal, do the same. Get a feel for the kinds of poems that appear in each journal. If you encounter poems in a journal that move you, that should say something about whether you want your own work in that journal. And if you read a journal and don’t feel strongly about the poems you see there, don’t send your work there, regardless of how aspirational or well-regarded the journal might. In terms of the actual submissions, be personable and professional. By “personable” I mean writing a cover letter that’s addressed to a person at the journal—usually the poetry editor. This will show that you’ve done some legwork to find out who works behind the scenes at that journal, doing the good work of producing that journal. The cover letter should be succinct, it should highlight your professional accomplishments thus far, and it should not disclose things about you that seem charming to you but actually come across as annoying to the person on the other side. And by “professional” I mean presenting your work with care. Don’t use a fancy font. Have your contact information on each page of your submission. Don’t send more than 6-8 pages of work.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
As I said above, everything in the poem counts. However, there are a couple of things that I as a reader really care about: imagery and syntax. I want poems that heighten my awareness of the phenomenal world, and a poem’s use of imagery—which can include all the elements of sensory experience, from sight to touch to smell to taste—is a primary agent for that heightening. Related to this is a poet’s use of metaphor and figuration—the magical sleights of hand that a writer employs to give each thing complexity and intensity. As for syntax, I tend to think that a poet’s feel for syntax says a lot, overall, about their ingenuity as a poet. Syntax, as I often say with irresponsible hyperbole to my students, is everything. Syntax can affect so much of the reader’s experience of any poem—intellectual and emotional pacing, rhythm and music, and so on. For new poets, I always recommend two books about syntax: Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax and Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence. I’m a fan of The Art Of series from Graywolf Press and believe there’s a whole education to be had from those books, from James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line to Carl Phillips’s The Art of Daring.
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
I’ve been sending out my work for almost 30 years and have received hundreds of rejections. When I was an undergraduate poet, I felt a bit of hubris and sent my first poems to the Beloit Poetry Journal, fully expecting to have the poems accepted. They were rejected, of course, and I was so crushed by this that I didn’t send out again for two years. During those years, I thought hard about how destructive rejection could be to my sense of myself as a writer, and how I needed to give rejection its appropriate value in my writing life. From then on, I have cultivated a hard division between my writer/artist self and my professional/managerial self. The latter self sends out the work, doesn’t care very much about rejections or acceptances either way, but tirelessly advocates for the work. This latter self protects the writer self, who has a hard time with rejections and acceptances, and inhabits the space of vulnerability and uncertainty that the writing comes from. Over the years, having the strong firewall described above has saved me over and over, when rejection would have otherwise silenced me.
Does your publication seek out specific styles or aesthetics of poetry that submitters should know about?
As a reader of poetry, especially contemporary American poetry, I’m dazzled by how excellent our poetry is these days, and excellent across the full aesthetic spectrum. As the poetry editor for New England Review, I want to represent that excellence as much as possible. In the most recent issue of the magazine, the Spring 2019 issue, we feature poems from venerable poets like Stanley Plumly and Arthur Sze, mid-career poets like Timothy Donnelly, Brian Teare, and Maggie Smith, and younger poets like Derrick Austin and Noah Warren. If you know the work of these poets, you know they represent a variety of styles. Another commitment I have is to bring in as many new poets to the magazine as possible. In my five years as poetry editor, we’ve published emerging poets for whom publishing in the New England Review was their first publication. This says something about the care we try to bring to reading our submissions, where we’re always looking for the bright new voices. And, of the 200 or so poets we’ve published in the last five years, about 70% of them had never appeared in the magazine before.
Rick Barot was born in the Philippines, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and attended Wesleyan University and The Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
He has published three books of poetry with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall (2002), which received the Kathryn A. Morton Prize; Want (2008), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize; and Chord (2015), which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and received the 2016 UNT Rilke Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer in Poetry.
His poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The New Yorker, and The Threepenny Review. His work has been included in many anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation, Language for a New Century, and The Best American Poetry 2012 and 2016.
Barot is the poetry editor of New England Review. He lives in Tacoma, Washington and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also the director of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at PLU. His fourth book of poems, The Galleons, will be published by Milkweed Editions in Spring 2020.