Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Maya Marshall, Underbelly
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 Maya Marshall, Co-Founder of underbelly.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Maya Marshall: This sounds trite, but I’m listening for a distinct voice. The poems that pull me into a place (soundscape or visual)—the ones with distinct music—are the ones I’m likely to say yes to. I love a distinct lexicon and it’s a joy to see a poet delight in language, to see a poet play. Much of the slush is nebulous, full of centered column poems with indistinct images and overwrought adjectives, so to see a poet choose a form that serves the poem’s content and to hear the world of their imagination clearly is a boon. It’s important to me that a poem have a clear sense of grammar even if that grammar is only internal to the poem—think e.e. cummings or M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong. Errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling, are distracting and indicate a lack of care and attention to detail. I’m not saying it must be perfect, but, particularly in spare poems, punctuation has a substantial job to do. As a reader I don’t want to split my attention between trying to understand the sentences and fully realizing the figurative choices.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Be sure your poem is finished before you send it out into the world. Make sure your work is a good fit for the journal you’re asking to house it. Everyone says it because it is important: read the journal you’re submitting to before you submit. Send your work somewhere where you really want it to be because you want it to be in the right place for it, not just some place. Also, it’s a numbers game. Send your strongest 3-5 poems to the optimal three journals for you. Track your own submissions using a spreadsheet you made or Submittable or a page in your notebook—whatever works for you. It’s not the cover letter, it’s the poems; focus on those.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
The tension between the sentence and the line is a crucial tendon in every poem. How a writer manipulates that tension using punctuation, syntax, white space, diction, etc. with respect to the central concern of the poem, offers the reader an inkling of how the poet manages the tension between imagination/reality and lyric/narrative. It’s a set of the most interesting choices to me (after the emotional core of the poem), because how the writer balances the line against the sentence shows their craft control within the moving muscles of context (many of which the poet cannot control), including whether it is published in print or on screen, which other poems surround it, how it words against the title, etc.
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
I get about a quarter of the things I apply for from book and journal submissions to residences. The truth is the applications are a numbers game. It took me three tries to gain acceptance to Cave Canem. I’ve been a finalist for the Fine Arts Work Center at Providence two times and have applied three, still no dice. It took two tries to get into Vermont Studio center. My “declined” queue in Submittable is about three times as long as my accepted. Such is life. These days the sting of rejection is pretty negligible, and when I receive a rejection I remind myself that it is not personal. I acknowledge that maybe what I see in the poem is not legible to readers who do not know me, and I look for ways to revise the poem. If I find that the poem is done, I consider whether that journal was the best place to submit it; if not, I send it somewhere else. I still have some journals I would love to have work in, but whose editors just aren’t into my aesthetic. That’s okay, too. There are many, many worthy journals out there. It’s just about finding a good fit.
Does your publication seek out specific styles or aesthetics of poetry that writers submitters should know about?
underbelly (underbellymag.com) is a solicitation- and referral-based journal. We’re looking, primarily, for writers who have a gift for elucidating their craft choices and whose published poems are surprising and compelling. We tend toward narrative poems, but enjoy the heavily lyric poems as well. For every journal I have edited for, Muzzle Magazine, Yemassee Journal, PANK, I’ve remained invested in sharp, honest, beautiful writing. For me, and for my coeditor, Marty McConnell, strangeness is a small god. Pretty for pretty’s sake is not enough. Emotional navel gazing is insufficient. The world is large and we want to see work about the big and small things in it.
What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets?
The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets Book by Ted Kooser. It’s in the title. If you’ve never been in a workshop, love poetry but are not in school, want to be able to decide for yourself whether your poems are “working,” this is a good place to start. He covers audience, world-building, mechanics, form, feeling, and memory. The poems used as examples are accessible and varied. There’s a lot to learn from here, and it’s entirely unpretentious.
Coin of the Realm by Carl Phillips. He’s an excellent storyteller. His vocabulary for craft and imagination is a fount to sip from. The meditations in the book link the personal and individual to the world at large and the importance of the relationship between those two things can’t be overstated. Check it out.
Maya Marshall is the author of the chapbook, Secondhand (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). She is cofounder of underbellymag.com, the journal on the practical magic of poetic revision. Marshall has earned fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Callaloo, Cave Canem, the Community of Writers, and The Watering Hole. She has served as a senior editor for [PANK] and works as a manuscript editor at Haymarket Books. Her poems have appeared in RHINO, Potomac Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Marshall’s poems have recently been selected for Best New Poets 2019 (University of Virginia Press) and have received a Pushcart nomination.