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July was probably the hardest submissions month ever.

That is to say there were not only more submissions than usual (the article in Poetry News had a considerable effect) but the quality was higher too.

This is how it works.

I try to deal with the envelopes as they arrive, not let them pile up because that’s too daunting for words. Sometimes I’m in when the postie struggles to get them through the box. Sometimes I come home to another pile.

As the month goes on, I become increasingly crabbit. This is because the process of reading so much poetry is stressful. I read every poem and I read them carefully. That’s full-on concentration, and I write on the poem-pages in pencil, sometimes very detailed comments. When a poet sends 12 rather than 25 poems, I feel pathetically grateful. The reading of each submission will take at least one hour, usually far more. I’ve sharpened two whole 2B pencils to death this month.

If I come across a very good set of poems, I get anxious. Why? Because I have too many publications scheduled already and there’s a hard year ahead with my other jobs. So on balance I’m trying not to accept new poets, while staying open-minded because there might be something . . . I can’t refuse.

I’ve written at length about the business of swinging the odds in How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published. At one time I used to send this gratis to quite a lot of people but I have only four left. I always hope poets approaching me will have spent time finding out what I look for – by reading blog entries like this one, or this one, or this one, or last year’s.

Certain thoughts are in my mind, as I open the envelope and make my first impression notes.

Is this a name I know?

Have I read (and liked) their poems before?

Is this a first or second (or third) submission?

Is this one of my subscribers?

Do they know my name?

Can they write prose? (covering letter)

Why have they sent to HappenStance?

Have they read any of my pamphlets?

Do I like the sound of the person?

Have they remembered the SAE?

Does the presentation look professional?

What’s the publication track record like?

Are they female? (I’ve never managed to publish as many women as men in a single year).

Are they Scottish/based in Scotland? (I do at least one publication by a Scottish writer every year)

Depending on the answers to these questions, I’m more or less favourably disposed towards the poems themselves, and the person who wrote them. Often, I find my crankiness annoying to myself, never mind the poor poet, who finds me scribbling rudely ‘Put your name and address on every page!’

If the pages are bound, stapled or neatly assembled in a plastic binder, I swear like a pirate as I disassemble them and prepare to read.

Sometimes the  poems arrive with a cover sheet brandishing a large TITLE for the proposed collection. But I’m only at the stage of wondering whether I’ll find any poems to like. And sometimes, this TITLE puts me off because I think it’s a terrible title. But that’s by the by.

(At this point, I’ll throw in a mention of the submission guidelines, which ask people not to bind the poems, and a few other things. And the Dos and Don’ts, which are also available as a free download pdf in the shop. If poets haven’t found their way to these, I draw one of two conclusions. 1. They’re not very good on the web and get lost easily in websites.  2. They haven’t looked.)

The reason I take apart people’s carefully bound and often page-numbered submissions is this. I read the poems one by one. I mark poems I like well enough to publish (if it comes to that) with a little tick and sometimes a smiley if I like them a LOT. I put those poems in one pile. The rest go in another pile. (This is the point where a poem can easily get dropped or misplaced, and if the poet’s name’s not on it, they may never see it again). If the pile of poems I like is either bigger than the other pile or contains a couple of poems I love, I may ask that poet to send again.

I don’t offer to publish pamphlets on first submission. I register an interest. I suggest a maybe. I tell them I’m thinking about 2015 just now. (I don’t mention it’s a pity they’re a man, because that’s not their fault.) I suggest the pamphlet competitions are well worth entering. And so on.

I feel very mean, when a poet has sent me all their best villanelles, not knowing how I hate villainelles (sic). For the record, for this unreasonable publisher, it is no-no to

  1. villanelles
  2. sestinas
  3. pantoums
  4. ekphrastic poems
  5. ‘after’ poems

This doesn’t mean I would never publish one of the above. It means they need to win me over with something else first, and then make the case for the first villanelle I will have liked for years.

In terms of presentation (I’m now unreasonably sensitive to how the poems look as well), this is what I prefer (it’s in the Do’s and Don’ts):

  1. a plain font, nothing fancy
  2. the same sort of size of print you find in a book (usually a 12)
  3. name and address of author discreetly on every sheet
  4. single-spaced (1.5 if you must)
  5. one poem per page (even if it’s a sequence)

I wish I knew what the formula was for a fabulous poem. If I did, I'd bottle it and sell it. There is no formula. There is no way of consciously doing this magical thing that’s ‘right’. I can, however, comment on a number of things that either make poems go wrong (to my mind) or make them same-ish.

Same-ishness is a problem. There are numerous poets writing worthy, well-made poems, poems I often enjoy reading. But they don’t quite lift off the page. Something slightly drags them down into being a little bit like something you’ve read before. I refer to some of the methods that contribute to this as 'Contemp Po'. And then I get over-sensitized to some of the Contemp Po techniques because they can put me off poems that have a real poem in them.

Here are some of the features I see as current mainstream Contemp Po:

poems in couplets (ok occasionally but can be ubiquitous)

poems based on one extended metaphor (sometimes it works)

cross-stanza enjambment with no particular logic to it, except to fulfil the poet’s desire to divide stanzas into neat chunks of two, three, or four lines.

poems divided into neat chunks

a couple of prose poems thrown in (I don’t hate them, but they’re not mandatory)

over-elaborate syntax, relying on multiple colons/semi-colons.

poem based on a single sentence but the reader gets lost in the middle

lots of sentences with no verbs in them.

disappearing articles (both definite and indefinite)

disappearing subjects (verb with no ‘I’)

lots of ‘I see’ and ‘I watch’ and ‘I feel’

numerous ‘as’ sentences

poems constructed round a sequence of imperative verbs

poems ending on the word ‘love’ (I know: I’ve done it too)

the word ‘yet’ flagging an epiphany

bizarre line breaks. Why break on a hyphen? It’s been done, and done, and over-

erratic and/or distracting punctuation

lots of verb clauses in apposition to each other (see below)

There’s an increasing tendency to write sections relying heavily on two or more verb clauses, each appended to the same subject. Often this increases towards the end or high point of a poem. Like this:

I walk into the room, pick up my gun, shoot
the publisher.

She goes for her pen, scribbles a poem,
hurls inhibitions round like confetti,
wonders why the world hasn’t ended yet.

I’m  interested in why this verb thing is happening so much. Was it always a habit? Do we instinctively emulate phrasing that sounds ‘poetic’? I think it could be something to do with rhythm and cadence. A sequence of verbs like that – when you read them, you LEAN on each verb, and that leaning thing propels the poem through, just as a series of imperative verbs set up an energy charge. Free form often yearns for rhythmic pattern.

What should a poet do to prevent me from obsessing about leaning verbs and ‘as’s and semi-colons? (I apologise. Really.)

This is hard to explain, but I think it’s like a window. You walk to the window and admire the garden, or the view of roof-tops. You don’t see the glass or the frame until long after you’ve admired what’s on the other side.

If I’m distracted by the mechanics of a poem – the couplets, the line lengths, the enjambment, the verbs, the rhymes – whatever – it means I’m seeing the glass, not the view. That suggests the text is not, for me, working as it should.

Obviously, this is true of lots of published poetry, and I’m only looking at submissions. But aren’t we all looking for the thing we hardly ever find? The view of the garden?

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Wednesday, 22 March 2023