Editors Talk: Emily Holland, Poet Lore
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 Emily Holland, Editor of Poet Lore.
Can you describe an average day at Poet Lore?
Emily Holland: The beauty of working as the editor of Poet Lore is that no day is the same. Some days, I am completely absorbed in our submissions, transported into the worlds of the poems. Other days, I have the privilege of communicating back and forth with our writers on edits, or I’m collaborating with a guest editor on their folio, or I am rereading a new collection ahead of a Virtual Craft Chat event.
I always say that there is so much more to writing than the actual physical “writing,” and the same applies to editing Poet Lore. Reading new poets, including poets outside of our submissions, listening to podcasts, hosting in-depth craft conversations – these are all part of my daily life as editor of Poet Lore and they each broaden my editorial scope in different ways. I’d even venture to say that spending time on Twitter is part of this as well, although I am more of a reader than a tweeter, these days. Some of my favorite new poets – and forthcoming contributors – are writers whose work I encountered via retweets or online publications.
Can you talk about the work and writers you publish—any consistent themes, forms, aesthetic qualities, you look for? Feel free to shout out some writers you’ve published here.
At Poet Lore we love featuring poems that broaden the spectrum of what poetry is – and can be – on the page. Given our redesigned larger sized print magazine, we have the ability to publish some poems that might otherwise not fit on standard book-sized pages, so we love experimental forms and forms that push the boundaries of the standard layout.
More generally, since becoming editor, I’ve really tried to center the goals of the original founders of Poet Lore, Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke, who were two queer Shakespeare scholars and life partners. They used Poet Lore as a space to highlight living writers whose voices were not yet celebrated by English readers. As a queer poet myself, I feel profoundly connected to the work of the founders, and some of their early impulses definitely influence how I approach building an issue. Throughout the years (nearly 133 of them!), Poet Lore has published so many now-household names before they were widely read. In centering those ideals of discovery, I hope that the pages of Poet Lore continue to embrace new voices and styles, and celebrate poets who will someday be on shelves around the world.
Since launching our new guest editor program, we have seen amazing themed submission calls (like Tarfia Faizullah’s on Surrealism and Strangeness, and Benjamin Garcia’s on Punctuation), but for our general calls, I try to veer away from theming too much and instead focus on poems that feel as if they are in conversation with one another, on the level of style or form. Sometimes this leads to amazing threads that flow across an issue almost subconsciously, and those moments surprise me and I hope they bring our readers joy as they move through an issue.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Always put your best poem first. It sounds too simple, but when we are reading thousands of poems across all of our submissions, it really helps to have something grab our attention right off the bat. Your poems could be someone’s first submission of the day, or their 100th and it really does help to have something standout and keep our attention throughout the entire submission packet.
Personally, I love when poets submit a few poems that are on similar themes, or even sequenced together. At Poet Lore we do often accept multiple poems from a single poet, so having some continuity between some of the submission is a good way to think about possibly having more than one poem featured.
Don’t be afraid to take risks, with form or content or both! We have published some newly-invented forms, poems with intricate footnotes, and poems spanning over five pages. Just because you are doing something new and innovative does not mean that there are not already readers waiting to see it.
Also, just remember that rejections are so subjective. Sometimes it’s because your work is not the right fit. Or we’ve already accepted a few poems in a similar style, or on similar themes. A rejection does not reflect back on the quality of the work you send, so please do submit again, especially if you receive a decline letter encouraging you to do so.
From a craft standpoint, what typically causes you to accept a poem? What causes you to turn the page and move on to the next poem in Submittable?
This is such a tricky question, and one that I ask myself often! For me personally, I find myself leaning towards poems that teach me something. This could be as literal as introducing a piece of information, or it could teach me new ways to metaphor or new ways to line break. The poems I find myself drawn towards are those that move in mysterious ways, that beg me to read them again and fall into their new landscape of language. I love to find myself in the poet’s headspace, to discover their unique way of seeing the world.
While I always read every submission, at Poet Lore we also have a team of volunteer readers who screen submissions, and with their input acceptances become a collaborative process. When they love a submission, it causes me to give it greater attention, even if I might have passed on it during my own screening process. This is, after all, not a magazine for me to read, but for everyone to enjoy, and I love going back to poems and re-discovering what might make a different reader fall in love with it. A poem that surprises me is often one I want to hold onto.
As far as “turning the page” on a submission, this is all so subjective and of course there are always exceptions, but I find that poems I leave behind most often are those that feel tired in their movement or their language. I know that isn’t exactly a concrete answer, but when reading thousands of poems, a small spark of a metaphor or a glistening image can really lift a poem off the page (and into the acceptance pile). A slow start to a poem doesn’t always mean that it won’t pick up speed, but I look for intentional and provocative movements as the poem progresses.
What have you learned as an editor and writer from working at “Poet Lore”? Where do you see the magazine in five years?
Since joining the Poet Lore team as an intern nearly four years ago, I have learned so much, not just as an editor, but also as a writer and member of the larger literary community. My hands have been in everything, from archival organization, to copyediting, to social media and events, and fundraising. Having this 360-degree view of the publication has given me new insight into the challenges of publishing a literary journal, and I am so thankful for the support of our publisher The Writer’s Center, who has also helped us grow our audience with our Virtual Craft Chat series, poetry workshops, fundraisers, and local events.
I have learned to embrace what is surprising and mysterious in other people’s writing and also my own work. Editing is such a collaborative exercise and I value each and every writer we have the opportunity to publish here. I know it is an incredible privilege to be at the helm of this historic journal, and it is one that I don’t take lightly. I hope to continue to be able to support new writers, help them grow their audience, and challenge the publishing status quo.
In the past few years, Poet Lore has seen so much change and growth, in its editorial teams, its physical shape and design, and its readership. I am so excited for what the future holds. This past year, we debuted our guest editor program which will feature a new guest edited folio in every issue. For the first time, we featured poems online from our latest issue, and will be going back a few issues to release some content online for readers. We also have some more exciting news to share ahead of the coming volume, Volume 117, that I will wait to keep as a surprise (for now).
Emily Holland (she/they) is a lesbian writer living in Washington, DC. She received her MFA from American University, where she was the Editor-In-Chief of FOLIO. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including Black Warrior Review, Nat. Brut, Homology Lit, and Wussy, and she is the author of the chapbook Lineage (dancing girl press 2019). Her work has received support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Currently, she is the Editor of Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry magazine published by The Writer’s Center.
Jose Hernandez Diaz
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is from Southern California. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Nation, Poetry and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Currently, he is an Associate Editor at Frontier and Guest Editor at Palette Poetry.