Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Kristin George Bagdanov, Ruminate Magazine
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 Kristin George Bagdanov, Poetry Editor of Ruminate Magazine.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Kristin George Bagdanov: I’m looking for poems that treat language with care. This is not to make a distinction between so-called lyric and narrative modes or to pit form against content, but to emphasize the fact that the parts of the poem do not merely add up to or work in service of the “whole.” If I sense that the poem is simply using language as a vehicle for larger, pre-determined ideas, rather than allowing those ideas to emerge from the relationship between parts within the poem, I am unlikely to accept it. It’s hard to describe what this attention to language looks like in a poem, as poets accomplish it through different styles, tones, and forms. Something these poems often have in common, however, is that by tending to language they also show their fault lines and vulnerabilities, the cracks from which a green shoot might suddenly burst. This is far more interesting to me as a poet, reader, and editor than a well-wrought poem.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
I think it’s important to ask why you are submitting your work. As a new writer, publication can feel like an initiation process or proving ground, and thus rejection can be interpreted as a sign that one doesn’t belong or isn’t “good enough.” However, rather than letting the gatekeepers get you down, I try to encourage new writers to reframe publication as way of participating in creative community. My advice then is to find the communities that value your work and challenge you, that extend beyond the page or issue in which your poem appears. I think the true gift of publication is being able to share your work with others and participate in a creative community that values you.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
Sound. I’m a huge believer in the sonic logic of a poem—that a word or line in a poem makes “sense” not only because of its semantic meaning but its sonic textures. I like when the sound and meaning of a word or line interrupt, contradict, and amplify each other and in doing so produce a new type of logic that teaches you something about how that particular poem is working. This doesn’t mean I’m looking for poems that incessantly rhyme or alliterate, but if I read a poem that seems to have abandoned the rhythm and textures of the line, that is driving too hard at something larger rather than grappling with the intricacies and pleasures of language, it’s very unlikely I’m going to be moved by it.
Does your publication seek out specific styles or aesthetics of poetry that submitters should know about?
As a journal focused on contemplative art, Ruminate is interested in pieces that ask questions rather than provide answers. I’m skeptical of poems that end with aphoristic resolution, that narrow their scope in order to direct that reader rather than provide a space that might lead to further contemplation. To “ruminate” is to chew on something over and over again, and so I look for poems to enact this churning meditation—to break open their own fibrous structures and ask whether they can do anything other than ask, repeatedly, what they are for.
What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets?
I often recommend Bin Ramke’s poetry to anyone who asks (his latest, Light Wind Light, is incredible). He is a master of soundscapes, of showing how meaning emerges from the relationship between words and lines and stanzas rather than being inserted into the poem by the poet himself. He also knows a lot about math, which is cool.
How is your journal shaped by the submissions you receive?
Every issue of Ruminate has a theme. Rather than deciding these themes ahead of time, which we found led to submissions that were a bit too “on the nose,” the editorial team discusses the ideas that emerged from the poetry, prose, and art that we’ve accepted for the issue (we’re currently exchanging emails regarding the theme of the Fall issue). This inductive approach means we’re adjusting to the work we receive, rather than enforcing an inflexible container onto it. After we decide the theme, we invite both readers and contributors to write short notes that respond to it. This facilitates a conversation between our readers and writers—something that helps materialize the community that shapes and is shaped by Ruminate. I typically then offer my own rumination on the theme, as I write a blog that offers readings of the poems in the issue that connect them to one another and the theme. I think of this as another way to include the readers and writers in an ongoing conversation (you can read my reflection on the poems from our 50th issue, “What Sustains,” here).
As poetry editor, I also try to let the submissions shape the issue. Sometimes this happens quite dramatically, as when I decided to do an entire issue dedicated to long or series poems after reading Ambalila Hemsell’s poem “Passport” in the queue (which you can read online here). I knew immediately I wanted to accept it. The only problem was its length—six pages I didn’t have room for in the upcoming issue. In a print journal, where I typically only have 15-18 pages of poetry to work with, it’s especially hard to make space for long poems. So, I decided to plan an issue around the poem and put out a special submission call and eventually accepted five long poems for the issue. As an editor, I’m always open to letting the submissions guide the issue rather than trying to fit everything into my predetermined view of what the issue should be. I think this organic process reflects our magazine’s mission to pay attention and be responsive to the beauty and strangeness all around us.
Kristin George Bagdanov earned her M.F.A. in poetry from Colorado State University and is currently a PhD candidate in English Literature at U.C. Davis. Her poetry collection, Fossils in the Making, was published in April 2019 by Black Ocean. Her chapbook Diurne, which won the 2019 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2019. She is the recipient of fellowships from Phi Kappa Phi, Lilly Graduate Fellows, and the Vermont Studio Center and poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @KristinGeorgeB. or @RuminateMag.
Ruminate’s poetry submissions open June 1, 2019 with zero reading fees and a payment of $20 per page.