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Re: Drafts – ‘Lessons from Press Gang and other submissions’

Rishi Dastidar and I are working closely with The Rialto editor Michael Mackmin on a programme designed to teach us about the process and philosophy of poetry editing.

Following the publication of The Rialto’s 81st issue, I met up online with Rishi to discuss how receiving poetry submissions has changed our perspective on the best way to send poems.

Holly: When you read the covering letters and poems that are sent to The Rialto, are there things in them that have made you see your own submissions in a different light?

Rishi: Yes, definitely – I think I’ve been consistently… surprised? impressed? about the care that goes into submissions. Makes me feel a wee bit guilty that I just dash stuff off at the last minute. How about you?

Holly: Looking at the covering letters has been interesting. I used to worry so much about what to say, and reading so many of them has really brought home to me how much I just want people to get the name of the magazine right, remember a short bio and list the poems.

How does it make you feel guilty?

Rishi: Well, if I walk you through a submission I did last week – 1) left it until the last moment, so maybe two days before deadline; 2) searching my inbox for the last bio I sent off; 3) copy and pasting both into a document; 4) pressing send; 5) remembering two hours later that I should have really put a big name publication on there that I didn’t because I’d been in such a rush to get it done. Not. Enough. Care.

Holly: The Rialto has rolling submissions, so we don’t get the last minute rush. However, I’m not sure if that means we’re getting more considered submissions from the last minute people, or if the last minute people are less likely to submit – because there’s never a last minute.

Rishi: I think there’s a very definite ‘need a deadline’ camp vs a much more organised camp. I know there are people out there with systems and spreadsheets to help marshal their submissions.

Holly: Surely you have a system or it would get so confusing?

Rishi: Nope, no spreadsheet here – just a plain Word doc with no tables.

Holly: That’s still a system, just more linear.

Rishi: When others have described their systems, I’ve been struck not just by the systematization of the process (and I would argue that my process is not very systemic), but also an implied underlying principle that all finished poems should be sent out.

(I am over-worrying that my system does not appear to be very systematic.)

Holly: I do think a spreadsheet can be useful – that’s how I record submissions – but I don’t think it means every poem on the sheet needs to be published. It’s more that once something has had a certain amount of effort invested in it, it goes on. I started a spreadsheet as a way to remember what poems I’d sent where, but then it became more of a way to remind myself what I had written full stop. I have a page for each year and I’m always surprised when I go to the current page and realize that yes, there is stuff on it.

Rishi: Have you ever done that most heinous of sins? (Simultaneous Submission) (Is it even heinous any more?)

Holly: I don’t think I’ve done so, at least not on purpose. When I first submitted to magazines I didn’t record what I’d sent, as I thought I would remember, but three months later I still hadn’t heard back and no longer knew what I’d sent. Instead of risking it, I didn’t make any more submissions until I’d heard back. That’s when I knew I needed to keep a record.

Rishi: I’ve seen a couple of covering letters saying “this is a simultaneous submission…” Is this now a growing trend? Has / is the stigma of doing so wearing off?

Holly: I don’t think I can really judge – since I would have needed to be editing for a longer period to see a change. However, it seems a bit self destructive – I mean what do you do if your preferred publication comes back and your poems have already been taken? It also seems a bit rude (unless simultaneous submissions are openly invited) a bit like saying you don’t care about a publication enough to think about what you’re sending, that you’re just sending the same thing to everyone. Do you think that’s a bit harsh?

Rishi: A little harsh, but then that gets us on the territory of: does one shape ones poems for certain titles? Who do you target and how?

I think its fair to say from what we’ve seen over the last five months we get a broad range of subjects, forms, attitudes…

I wonder if simultaneous submissions are basically saying ‘I haven’t actually seen / read where I’m sending to. And I don’t care?’

Holly: I think that might be a fair characterization. I think I’m more likely to see simultaneous submissions from someone who opens their covering letter, ‘Dear Editor’, or worse, ‘Dear Sir’, than from someone who uses the editors’ names. It’s partly acknowledging you’ve read the publication but also that you are sending your poems to real people.

I was asked to do a talk for some creative writing undergraduates a few months back, about how to submit work for publication. Many of the students assumed that most poetry magazine editors were full-time paid employees of their magazine and were very surprised when I explained that this isn’t the case. As soon as you stop and think, “hang on, I’m sending this to someone who is editing part-time or squeezing it into evenings and weekends,” you maybe treat it a little differently.

Rishi: Indeed, indeed.

Holly: Did you have a mental picture of what an editor was like before your first-ever magazine submission?

Rishi: No… I’m not sure that I ever did; I’m not sure that I do now, even while dabbling.

The thing of ‘editor’ has always struck me as being more of an ‘embodiment’ even though I know rationally its the expression of a person’s taste, judgment, experience.

Holly: How do you mean?

Rishi: Well, I suspect this is my previous dabblings in other publications driving this, but: once the thing has a title and a name, it starts to take on a life, a characteristic that is more than just the tastes etc. of one person.

It might be almost wholly associated with that person, but there’s something about a masthead that should (ideally?) move it towards something a bit more objective.

Holly: Awww… I was hoping you’d have amusing stories about what you thought editors were like when you were little.

Rishi: Ha ha! Probably Julia Sawalha in Press Gang!

Holly: I have no idea who that is.

Rishi: Youngsters!

That’s the first editorial figure I can remember.

Holly: Wow! Do they solve crimes? Like the big corporation secretly dumping toxic waste in the local lake?

Rishi: I believe there was a local corruption story in the school broken open every week.

One last one… Does publishing make a poem ready? Complete?

Holly: No. Definitely not. There are poems I’ve had published that I’ve continued to change – and I’ve helped people with manuscripts where they have a poem which has an obvious flaw but they feel like they can’t change it because it’s been published and it’s depressing, because publication doesn’t make a poem more of a poem. It’s just a way of sharing it with people.

Rishi: That *is* useful to know. Publishing a poem in a magazine is just a step on the poem’s way somewhere else.

Holly: There are poems of mine in online magazines that are easily Google-able where the online version is not as good as the version in my pamphlet. This is particularly true of themed projects where I wrote the poem for a specific brief so it might have been only a few weeks old when it went online, whereas I prefer to keep re-drafting for a longer period.

Rishi: So how do you know when something’s, if not finished, ready to send to a magazine?

Holly: Well, a poem can feel finished, but you return to it six months later and realize it wasn’t. But since I’ve learned that now, I usually wait those six months before sending it anywhere. However, when I write something for a themed project, usually there’s a deadline, so I just have to decide whether I think it’s ready enough. I like those projects because sometimes when I feel too busy with my paid jobs they can help me carve out a space to work and I enjoy having both the challenge and the deadline. But I know when I submit I may end up revising it much later.

I think the big ask is, ‘Would you want to read this in a magazine?’ (If it had been written by someone else) and to be brutally honest with yourself. I reckon that self-honesty is the most important and hardest part of developing your writing. But at the same time, not to be disheartened by the honest answer, but to do something about it instead.

Poets Rishi Dastidar and Holly Hopkins are working closely with The Rialto editor Michael Mackmin on a programme designed to teach them about the process and philosophy of poetry editing. Each month, on a new series we’re calling Re: Drafts, they’ll share their findings on CAMPUS.



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Image: Julia Sawalha in Press Gang