Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Dorothy Chan, Hobart
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 Dorothy Chan, Poetry Editor of Hobart.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Dorothy Chan: Precision. Exactness. Quirk. Romance.
So first off, I have a soft spot for the sonnet. If a poet can write a good contemporary sonnet, then I’m totally in. I like to look at ways poets take a traditional form and contemporize it — give it that quirk — give it their own signature style, so that’s where the “quirk and romance” comes in. In order to do so, the poet must have a full understanding of the history of the form, along with a respect for the form. It’s like I always tell my students: if you’re going to write a sonnet that is thirteen or fifteen lines, thus breaking the mold, you must first be able to explain the reasoning to yourself, because if you’re not convinced, then the editor/reader won’t be. At the same time, you have to practice the form about 100+ times in order to get it right. Writing takes discipline. Craft and style takes discipline.
In terms of overall craft, I think about 1. Whether there is a single line or word out of place, because according to my Poetry Uncle, Alberto Ríos, “The best line of the poem is the one that I am reading, and that does not exclude the title” and 2. Whether or not the poem surprises me. We all love surprises. So, surprise me.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Don’t be afraid to submit! Get it out of the way! Submit sooner rather than later just for the sake of the experience. I think it’s important that new poets submit their work ASAP once they feel it is done for now. Like anything, the more you do it, the more you get better at it. Don’t count the rejections. Submit and then forget. Don’t overthink it. And always put your best work to the forefront — don’t be afraid to take risks. Also, don’t write for the sake of impressing editors — it never works. But what does work is writing based on instinct and what truly interests you.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
Discipline in studying forms. I was explaining this to my students the other day: you can only truly understand free verse if you fully immerse yourself in the study and practice of forms. You do not need to like every form that you study, but you need to be able to do it. And then once you have that understanding, such as the understanding of counting syllables and excision, then you’re able to understand decisions you make in free verse.
I’m also going to mention another piece of advice from Ríos: titles are important! I tell my students to aim for full-bodied titles: five words or more. If you’re going to do a one-word title, though, it better be a damn good word.
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
Submit and forget. Get rejected and forget. I’m not sure how many, but that number is up there. But that’s also because when I was starting out, I’d submit to at least 50 places in one sitting.
What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets?
I know that this answer might be expected, but it’s expected for a reason: Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. Today I taught her chapter, “Twenty-Two Short Lectures.” I’ve been studying this book since my undergraduate at Cornell, working with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, and then in grad school, David Kirby assigned it in his workshop. Simply, it puts any reader in the mindset of a poet. I also love how it’s collected lectures that can work as essays, that can work as nonfiction, that can work as a full-on ars poetica or love letter to poetry.
Of course, everyone also loves the chapter “On Beginnings.” I love how in this chapter, Ruefle, in a sense, makes all writers accountable: don’t abandon your poems. Finish your projects. Actually put in the hours. And I always tell my students this: in order to succeed, you need to put in the hours.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press, forthcoming), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, March 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She is a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University, a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, The Cincinnati Review, Quarterly West, The Offing, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Poetry Editor of Hobart. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com