Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Patricia Killelea and Lisandra Perez, Former and Current Poetry Editors of Passages North
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 how poems get evaluated in their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Patricia Killelea and Lisandra Perez, former and current poetry editors for Passages North.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to accept a poem?
Lisandra: Poetry that works on its own. Passages does not publish entire manuscripts or collections of poems which means that each individual poem is read as such. As stand-alone works. If the poem can carry its own weight and takes the reader into the life it breathes, it is strongly considered.
Patricia: I pay the closest attention to poems which value the relationship between those twin forces of form and content. Whether marked by harmony or tension, driven by busy sound or spacious silence, I want to enter the world of a poem and have a sense that there was consciousness during the formation of its architecture. If a poem’s structure feels arbitrary, it’s difficult to get fired up about it. Try new things. When that doesn’t work out, try something else. Cultivate curiosity about the body of the poem, which is just as important as the inner life it holds.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Lisandra: I don’t know if this is controversial to say but submitting is not the most important part of the publication process. Submitting poetry is an incredible feat—knowing that your writing is now in the ether waiting for someone to read it. Before getting there though, you need to become your own number 1 fan. Rejection is a huge part of the submission process. Your poem is not always going to land with the audience you intended it for. At the end of the day, if you’re passionate about your writing, these rejections will feel less like a reflection of your work and more of a reflection of chance. You need to remember and remind yourself why you are writing in the first place. The right reader will come around and that poem of yours will find its home. Trust your voice and writing—it yours for a reason.
Patricia: When I first started publishing poems some twenty years ago, I used to automatically send out my work to the places that were considered the “top journals.” I did this automatically without even reading those publications, naively trusting the assessments of others. Eventually, I would get around to reading some of those fancy journals and I finally understood why I was receiving rejections—my work was nothing like the poems in those journals! Spend time reading literary magazines and finding out which ones are kin. Another strategy that’s useful is reviewing the publishing credits at the back of a poetry collection and seeing which journals originally published that writer’s work. If you have a similar style or subject matter, consider sending your poems to those same places. Most of all, a rejection of your work is not a rejection of you as a person.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
Lisandra: I love this question! Two words: line breaks. In my Intro to Creative Writing class, I emphasize reading your poetry out loud or having someone else read it for you in order to locate where that breath pauses and then lifts into the next word. That becomes your line break. They should be intentional, whether they are more broken/jagged or flow musically, it should reflect the content of the poem.
Patricia: I wish more poets would spend time reading their work out loud so they can deliver it effectively to an audience. Give your poetry the respect it deserves by infusing your voice with the appropriate energies. A boring poetry reading is so heartbreaking. Some poems are total page poems and don’t work very well when spoken, but that’s really quite rare. If you practice reading your work, if you know your own poems so well you barely have to look down at the page because you remember the way each line feels in your mouth, then a reading can move beyond mere performance. It can become a gathering place wherein the poem takes on a shared life, even if just for a few moments.
What book of poetry/craft would you always recommend to new poets?
Lisandra: Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography by Edgar Garcia and The Year of Blue Water by Yanyi.
Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography has become one of my favorite poetry books that I have revisited more times than I can count on my hands. Garcia chronicles the “linearity” of histories and colonial violence that interrogates the subjectification of the self therein the world that moves around us. He uses mixed media to exemplify the journey of storytelling and brings forth a fresh perspective of what poetry can be.
Yanyi’s poetry collection The Year of Blue Water is a breath of light. The writing itself is a series of cultural observations that wrestles with the binaries of gender and what that means in a world that actively works against that. Yanyi’s voice is incredibly deft and curious; this book is not just a page turner, but one that you return to again and again and again.
Patricia: How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton is a gem—it is multifaceted and reveals more philosophical truths, emotional depth, and craft mastery each time you hold it up to the light. Lucille Clifton’s collection Mercy has been one of my favorites for years after it was recommended by one of my mentors, Joe Wenderoth, but Clifton’s Selected came out in 2020 and gave me a whole new appreciation for her work across time and space. She is known for her clarity and concision, but even if you write longer pieces, you should understand the power of the poetic utterance. New poets can benefit from studying Clifton’s spareness and oracular qualities.
Deepstep Coming Shining by C.D. Wright (1998) is still as strange, beautiful, and revelatory as it was when it was first released. I can’t think of another collection which sounds quite like it or does what it does. The book feels both hyper-specific yet all-encompassing, braiding together strands of photography and history, familial relationships and meta-themes about language and memory against the backdrop of a road trip through the South, where Wright was originally from. Reading the book is somewhat like watching an experimental film. It’s also filled with unexpected moments of tenderness and violence, pop culture and politics.
Lisandra, as a newer editor, what has surprised you the most about your role?
As a new editor at Passages North, I was most surprised about the confidence and trust Patricia Killelea had in me. Not a lot of young editors get the opportunity to be an editor at a magazine—most have a wealth of experience. I am very lucky to hold this position.
Patricia, what are the ways, if any, you have seen the publishing world change over the past few years?
I was Poetry Editor at Passages North from 2015-2022. I stepped down because I thought the journal could use more up to date perspectives on poetry. I tend to spend the most time reading older poetry collections as opposed to keeping up with the trends or the newest work, so the position is a better fit for someone with fresher eyes. I also believe in sharing power, and after seven years in this role, I knew it was time to make room for someone else to have this opportunity. Lisandra is such a fine poet and has done an excellent job as Poetry Editor—it’s a joy to mentor the next generation of poetry editors. One thing I’ve seen change in the publishing world is more openness and curiosity surrounding genre. Years ago, so many submissions looked the same, and now we receive many that are hybrid, experimental, or otherwise aren’t bound to a narrow interpretation of genre or mode.
Lisandra Perez is a Mexican-immigrant queer poet residing in the Upper Peninsula. They’re the Poetry Editor for Passages North, and their work can be found in The Acentos Review, Heavy Feather Review, and others. Their favorite date is April 25th because it’s not too hot, not too cold. They wear crocs often and enjoy the pastime of vacuuming. Find them on twitter @perezlisandra_.
Patricia Killelea is a writer and multimedia artist living in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Her most recent poetry collection Counterglow was published by Urban Farmhouse Press (2019). Her videopoems and essays on videopoetry have been featured at FENCE, Poetry Film Live, and Atticus Review. Her videopoems have also been officially selected for Det Poetiske Phonotheque’s Nature & Culture Film Festival, the O’Beal International Poetry Film Festival, and Rabbit Heart Poetry Film Festival. She was poetry editor at Passages North from 2015-2022 and now reads poetry at FENCE. She is of Chicana and Irish American descent.