Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Lesley Wheeler, Editor of Shenandoah
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 Lesley Wheeler, Editor of Shenandoah.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Lesley Wheeler: As Rick Barot says, irresistible poems possess a force beyond craft. More good poems are submitted to Shenandoah than we could ever accept, so we choose the crafty poems we as individuals have the strongest responses to. Usually that’s Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples and me, comparing our reactions and considering how our initial feelings of amazement evolve over multiple readings. I personally love complicated sound structures and syntactic surprises—poems that leap from sentence to sentence in unpredictable ways—but the poems I can’t say no to convey intelligence, too, and emotional urgency. Craftiness in style and structure carries the poem’s charge, but the fundamental obligation is to choose powerful material, to be interesting.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
I remember feeling frustrated at editors’ advice to read several issues before submitting. Living in a rural place and teaching in an undergraduate program, I don’t have regular access to physical literary magazines except the ones I subscribe to, and no one can afford to subscribe to every interesting journal. Early on, “read several issues” felt like an insider’s reprimand: if you don’t already know everyone, don’t try. What I gradually realized is that, whoever and wherever you are, learning markets is a necessary obligation for a writer who wants to publish. You’re basically acquiring an advanced degree in magazine culture, and that takes years. It’s a pleasure, but it also involves an enormous amount of labor and time. Most of us can’t skip it and leap right into po-biz stardom.
I ended up developing a shorthand in my submission notes so I could remember trends across issues after reading them: this editor seems to like poems that are surreal, narrative, jumpy, political, emotionally stark, formal, free verse, etc. Because aesthetics and mastheads change, you can’t rely on old notes alone, but having them helps me when I consider venues.
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
Thousands. Sometimes they constitute useful communications: these poems weren’t ready yet, or I aimed this essay at the wrong venue. At least as often, being rejected is a huge bummer, and occasionally it triggers a spiral of existential doubt. I cope with those feelings through routine. Every six or eight weeks—if that’s possible—I take stock of my current submissions (I often schedule that job for breaks within and between semesters). Then I revise and resubmit whatever work still seems strong, adding in pieces that feel newly finished. If you have multiple batches of poems out there, there’s always hope.
One of the ways editorial work has helped me as a writer: I’m a little less likely to feel crushed. I have to reject a lot of admirable poetry, so other editors, too, must like some poems they turn down. Even a terrific poem might not hit an editor exactly right at the necessary moment. Plus, when an editor takes the time to tell me a piece came close, I’m now moved. I finally believe they mean it.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
There’s a kind of cliché that writers don’t always proof for, an overly familiar pairing of noun and verb such as “lightning struck” (I’m drafting these answers during a thunderstorm). In some kinds of writing, words that click together automatically, like Lego blocks, sound fine, but literary language should be fresher. So I’d say check for lazy phrasing, although that’s just a variation on the idea that every word is important.
It’s also true that every rule needs to be broken sometimes, so don’t be afraid of rebelling against any teacher’s ironclad rule! For example, I bet if you were developing a motif in which “strike” had multiple meanings, you could defamiliarize the cliché enough to reveal surprising resonances.
Lesley Wheeler’s new books are The State She’s In, her fifth poetry collection, and Unbecoming, her first novel. Her essay collection Poetry’s Possible Worlds will appear from Tinderbox Editions in 2021. Wheeler’s poems and essays appear in such journals as The Common, Poetry, Ecotone, and Massachusetts Review, and she is Poetry Editor of Shenandoah. She lives in Lexington, Virginia.