Editors Talk Poetry Acceptances: Cortney Lamar Charleston, Poetry Editor of The Rumpus
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 from within their slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Cortney Lamar Charleston, poetry editor of The Rumpus.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: For any poets reading this who are just beginning their publication journey, I have a few remarks which I hope will help establish the right expectations. First and foremost, understand that you publish based upon your own goals and timelines and nobody else’s: you do not have to publish everything that you write; you do not have to publish faster than you are truly ready to; you do not have to publish only with certain publications to be considered “serious” while ignoring others of less prestige or notoriety that have plenty of merit. I begin here to point your attention to things that you can control, or consent to, as when you are submitting work for consideration, there is so much that you will not be able to influence from the moment you hit send.
Any literary magazine or journal that you submit to will have its own internal processes to determine what they will finally publish for their audience. The number of readers and editors that encounter your work will vary, as will the deliberation process, as will the tastes and preferences of each person involved in that process. Publication comes when there is a confluence of admiration in the craft of the work among these multiple people alongside belief in or appreciation for the message relayed through the text (and all to a greater extent than with other work being considered). There are several opportunities for editorial impressions to be out of sync with one another, and this fact combined with the significant volume of work most publications are considering makes it that the odds stand solidly against acceptance when measuring it by the numbers. There will be rejection along the way, and plenty of it, but it’s important to understand rejection for what it is and what it isn’t.
Now, if you’ve taken all that in, and you are sure that you want to begin submitting poems for publication, but you don’t know where to submit, then I tend to recommend looking at publications where poets you admire have had their work featured (you can find this info most exhaustively in the Acknowledgments sections of their poetry collections). I say this because, very often, the poets we most admire also produce work that feels intrinsically related to our own, due to subject or more specific craft elements, thus our gravitation toward them. I personally would do this quite a bit when I first began submitting work; it helped me envision, in a very expansive and vibrant landscape, where there might be editors and readers receptive to what I was writing about and how I was writing about it. Perhaps it this little tip can serve you the same way.
As a writer yourself, what is your personal approach to dealing with rejections?
Rejection is never easy to deal with, but I promise with practice it certainly becomes easier to deal with. Earlier, I discussed how different publications will each have their own processes for determining what makes it to the final issue or release; I did this to highlight that there are too many variables or considerations beyond your individual poems to infer a rejection indicts your poem as “not being good enough.” It’s kind of like the relationship between rectangles and squares: a poem accepted for publication has been deemed a fit for its quality, among other potential factors, but a poem that has been turned away can still be a strong poem.
When I receive a rejection, my first impulse, now, is to revisit the poem that was turned away and ask myself if there is a way to make it stronger. Sometimes this impromptu round of revision reveals editing opportunities that I missed before; other times I’m left with the poem as I submitted it. In the latter case, I’m inclined to trust my own intuition about the poem and its readiness for an audience (and I believe you should trust your intuition also!) and begin to investigate other potential homes for it. It truly may be as simple as the poem needing a different set of readers to find its proper place, as difficult as it may be for us to believe when we’re still feeling the sting of the initial no.
With that being said, I readily admit it does take a certain amount of belief or confidence in your work to not become discouraged by the roadblocks you will not doubt face on your way to publication, but I suppose that is another lesson in itself: if you cannot stand behind your work proudly and confidently even when no one else does, then you might not yet be ready to go through all the ups-and-downs of submitting and potentially risk straining the relationship between you and your writing. If you are uncertain about what you are sending in, that’s an intuitive signal not to proceed until you are assured by the strength of what you’ve written and what you’ve written alone.
Does your publication seek out specific styles or aesthetics in poetry that writers should know about?
I can confidently answer this question with a no, and that’s meant entirely as a positive. I and my co-poetry editor, Carolina Ebeid, are the final decision-makers on what we publish at The Rumpus, and we have differences in our personal tastes and philosophies that must be navigated to figure out what work is featured at The Rumpus. Rather than let those differences get in the way, however, we embrace them and allow ourselves room to advocate for the work that moves us, for whatever reasons that may be. Because different things make us tick, there’s not one aesthetic that dominates what we publish (and this is true, also, due to our reading team’s diverse preferences, as they are the ones who refer submissions to Carolina and me for final review and decision).
Ultimately, our goal at The Rumpus is to publish a wide variety of work that reflects the range of what’s happening in contemporary English-language poetry, both in terms of what’s taking place on the page and who is creating that work from what orientation or worldview. We commit ourselves to a certain type of openness and strive to be a venue where anyone of any background or style can imagine their work living. I’m proud to say we generally succeed in that effort.
Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books, 2017) and Doppelgangbanger (Haymarket Books, 2021). He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Winner of a Pushcart Prize, his poems have appeared in POETRY, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, Granta and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus and on the editorial board at Alice James Books.