Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Editors of Plume 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 Daniel Lawless and Leeya Mehta, the Editors of Plume Poetry.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Daniel Lawless: I’m afraid the advice I have is not new or notable, and involves, generally, housekeeping. First, and though one would think needless to say — proofread carefully, and then proofread again, whatever you submit! There is little more off-putting to an editor than a typo in a poem, nor less embarrassing to the one who has made it. As with reading anything (I am looking at you of late, NYT), such errors render the whole less credible, and are liable to send the work to the Decline pile immediately. Second, I suppose there is the matter of the cover letter. Journals receive many, many electronic submissions, and, truth be told, I imagine a few harried editors facing hundreds if not thousands of them may well click on the bio note/cover letter and decide either to read or pass on the spot. Terrible, I know, but there it is. So, keep the cover letter brief, mentioning only three or four books or previous publications. Do not advertise the work’s themes or origin stories; the reader will come to them in the poems and such is a mark of the insecure or the amateur. It is not out of bounds at all, however, to note briefly how you came to submit to a particular journal – citing your admiration of a recent issue’s poem, for instance. Last – editors are humans, and susceptible to flattery, up to a point, but we can sniff out obsequiousness like ferrets.
Leeya Mehta: My advice to new poets would be: as you write and submit, build a writer’s community and read and listen to poets from your immediate community. Embed yourself in community as much as is possible. For the good times, for the dry days. Many of your first readers will be in this close-knit group and they will support you—a writer’s community is an end in itself. Share your work with other writers even if you are simultaneously submitting work. Poetry production and publication is a lifetime’s work, there is no one size fits all. Find poems you love, and look for journals that they are published in. I assume that you will tend to write the poetry that you love. When you submit, do not fear rejection. Editors are not gatekeepers as much as we think they are. They are facilitators. A journal may have someone who advocates for your work, so if you are rejected it doesn’t mean someone doesn’t love your work. Send work out as widely as you feel like, or as narrowly, but keep writing and sending out, especially to small and new journals in your community so you build confidence and a paper trail.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
Leeya Mehta: I think for me, it is staying very close to the particular at the beginning of a poem. I love big ideas but I’m not sure if they belong in the first lines of a poem. I like to be anchored in the specifics of a place or an emotion before I am taken into a loftier place. Like in September 1, 1939, Auden begins with where he is sitting, giving us a sense of place. I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second street / Uncertain and afraid…
Does your publication seek out certain styles or aesthetics of poetry that submitters should know about?
Daniel Lawless: For Plume, in a word, no. As always, it is imperative that submitters search for any declaration of “what we are looking for” on the journal’s website or in paper issues, as, depending on what they discover there, of course, they might be promptly dissuaded from submitting, or have their ardor to do so further enflamed. If it is the former, much time will be spared, on both sides. (Note bene: submitters, follow the Guidelines for submission to the letter. ) If this declaration is not to be found, it’s best – always best! — to take your cues from the work appearing in recent issues of the magazine in question. Here is an extract from our notice (although I am not sure how much help this will be):
In brief, Plume is a magazine dedicated to publishing the very best of contemporary poetry. To that end, we will be highly selective, offering twelve poems per monthly issue. A provisional indication of our tastes – “what we are looking for” — may be inferred from the quoted passages (which will change often): a sense of the uncanny, foremost, and of the fineness of language, the huge absences to which it points and partakes of, and the urgency and permanence of its state of departure — the coattails forever –just now—disappearing around the corner. But also a certain reserve, or humility, even when addressing the most humorous or trying circumstances. Whether this demands twenty words or two hundred is up to you. All work will be presented in English, although we very much encourage international contributions, and bilingual editions are on the agenda.”
What book of poetry/craft would you always recommend to new poets?
Daniel Lawless: Oh, there are so many! For the basics, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and Kelli Russell Agadon’s and Martha Silano’s The Daily Poet: Prompts For Your Writing Practice. Then there is Kim Adonnizio’s and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion. A little further on, try Mary Ruefle’s marvelous Madness, Rack, and Honey or Jane Hirschfield’s Nine Gates. Finally, don’t neglect a book on architecture, which speaks to many of the poet’s concerns, as well — Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. But, of course, the best way to learn to write poetry is to read poetry – a lot, regularly, and of all styles. Nose around the Poetry Foundation website; you’ll find someone you like, and he or she will lead you to someone else. Follow the breadcrumbs. Look at New Pages, a listing of current literary journals and magazines. Or go truly old school: visit a library’s Poetry section, choose whatever calls to you (sometimes it is the cover alone), and take a seat either right there in the stacks or at a table. From your newly constructed tower, check out those that appeal most, slip them into your backpack or tote, and, once home, in a quiet place, begin, as they say ( or continue), the journey that never ends.
Daniel Lawless founded Plume in 2012 and continues as its editor. His poetry has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, and he lectures at Creative Writing programs both in the US and abroad. He teaches at Saint Petersburg College.
Leeya Mehta is a prize-winning poet and fiction writer. Leeya has a column on the literary life, The Company We Keep. She is the author of a chapbook The Towers of Silence and A Story of the World Before the Fence. Her work has appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, District Lit, Gargoyle, Poetry London, Vinyl Poetry, and Why Nicht? amongst others. Leeya grew up in Bombay and was a Radhakrishnan Scholar at Oxford University. You can find her latest work here: https://leeyamehta.com/
Felicity Sheehy's work appears in The New Republic, The Yale Review, Narrative, The Adroit Journal, Poet Lore, Blackbird, Shenandoah, Southern Indiana Review, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. She has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship to the Kenyon Review Writers' Workshop, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the Jane Martin Poetry Prize for U.K. residents under 30. In 2019, she was listed as one of Narrative's 30 below 30 writers.