Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Matthew Henry, Editor of The Weight 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 the MEH, Editor of The Weight Journal, a new literary space for high school students.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Matthew Henry: Intention is one of the things that I look for in a poem. Not just in terms of content or message, but also elements like interesting capitalization and spacing. I love enjambment that presents a cliffhanger, or gives a double meaning when the next line is read. We don’t get a lot of rhymed poetry at The Weight Journal, but when we do, I appreciate when it is paired with a consistent meter, or meter that is broken for effect. Mostly I’m looking for works with great turns of phrase and images I can vividly picture in my mind, things that make me swear out loud from jealousy.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Don’t make a change to your work that you don’t agree with, especially not to get published. Editors are humans with their own biases, so their suggestions can reflect this. I’m sure I’m guilty of this too. Finding your own voice can be difficult, but it shouldn’t be dependent solely on what some editor like me has to say. While I have received excellent feedback on submissions which has improved my poetry, I have also had to turn down offers for publication when an editor wanted me to change something beyond a typo or an ill-worded phrase; times when they wanted me to change my work in a way that was in complete opposition to the poem’s vision, be that adding or deleting sections, or changing intentional choices about capitalization.
New poets, especially those fighting for their first publication, need to learn that only they can decide whether the suggestion is pushing the poem in the direction it “should” go. And then weight what is more important: the poem or publication?
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
Seeing as how slipping into a depressive coma is not high on my list of “fun activities” these days, I do not count the number of rejections I’ve received. But I can guess that I receive at least 10 rejections for every accepted poem. I’ve published a little over 100 poems (and I’m going to pretend like I didn’t just do that math). I tell my students and those who ask for publishing advice not to take rejections to heart. I attempt to live by my own advice, but it is hard not to look at Submittable and my personal submission spreadsheets and not think about making drinking a competitive sport.
In the face of rejections I try to focus on three things: first, how subjective the whole process is. Last week I received two emails within five mins of each other. The first was a form letter rejection regarding a poem I poured my soul into. The next was a personal letter from an editor telling me how much she loved the same poem, and was hoping it was still available for publication. If one journal doesn’t like a piece, someone else probably will. Second, I like my poetry and I write for myself, first and foremost. So let the haters hate. Third, maybe my submission was not as great as I thought, so I need to revise and revise and revise until I come out of that spiral of productive and unproductive fretting, and remind myself of #1 and #2.
Does your publication seek out specific styles or aesthetics of poetry that submitters should know about?
The Weight Journal is looking for the best in high school creative writing. Some people read that and think the bar is low, or that high schoolers don’t have literary game. We’re looking to publish work that says something profound about the human condition, something with gravitas, with weight. We publish work that has a depth and maturity that makes a reader think “a high schooler wrote that?!” As such, we have no specific aesthetic. The poetry editors have a broad spectrum of tastes, and we seek to honor all of them.
What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets?
Because I’m from Massachusetts, where the proper pronunciation of our town names causes outsiders to swear profusely and throw things, I grew up being one of those people/poets who didn’t believe that meter and scansion were real things. I thought it was way too subjective and made no sense to me whatsoever.
During my MFA program, one of my professors sat me down and explained the absolutely lunacy of what I was saying. She gave me Mary Oliver’s Rules of the Dance and John Nims’ Western Wind (which is a wonderful resource for many reasons) to beat that out of me. While I am not a poet who often composes strict metrical lines, both of these books changed how I looked at the process of crafting poems and gave me the gift of understanding the power of meter. I recommend both of these books for those reasons among others.
MEH has been nominated for a couple of Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net for his poetry. He also dabbles in prose. He is the author of Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020), editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal, and should not be confused with the long dead, white theologian (so stop asking about his commentary on the Bible).
MEH is an educator whose career has found him teaching English, education, philosophy, and sociology at the high school, college, and graduate levels. He will most likely die in a classroom. His writing shines a black-light on the bed of relationships, race, religion, and everything else you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company. He received his MFA from Seattle Pacific University, yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing a MA in theology (Andover Newton Theological School) and a PhD in education (Lesley University).