Poetry for Publication: The Quality Question

One of the best moments for me when I’m instructing a workshop is the moment when a participant asks a question that challenges me to think through my own assumptions and ideas. While teaching a workshop on theme in poetry at the Northwest Poet’s Concord this year, I had one of these experiences. After a discussion about the importance of developing theme when writing poetry for publication, a particularly astute participant asked, “Isn’t publishing poetry really about quality?”

We’d love to think so, but my answer is an emphatic, “No!” There are several reasons for this answer. Here are 5 of them:

Literary journals have guidelines.

Some journals only publish work that fits into a theme they’ve predetermined for a given issue (THEMA, for example). Some journals publish work that falls into one subset or another of the genre. For example, The Sun publishes highly personal work. A poem about a tree, no matter how well-crafted, is unlikely to fit into The Sun unless the poet clearly uses the tree to explore a very personal subject. On the other side of the coin, The Externalist published only socially significant work. A poem about a tree, no matter how well-crafted, was unlikely to be selected unless the poet used the tree to explore a major social issue. Even journals that don’t actively acknowledge a slant or thematic preference have thematic preferences. This happens for other reasons outlined below.

Slush pile readers, including editors, have preferences.

This reason came out of a discussion about the selection process of a particular local literary journal, CALYX: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. CALYX has a unique editorial process wherein two volunteer readers must ‘pass’ a poem (i.e. say they like it) after which time the poem is distributed to a committee that determines final publication selections. Typically there are fewer readers during the selection process, but the end result is the same: whoever is reading the slush pile has an idea of what they’re looking for in a poem. For a poem to get through the slush pile, it has to resonate with the reader on some level. While the reader might well respect the craft involved in composing a particular poem, if the poem does not attract them on other levels, it’s unlikely to be selected. Journals have limited space. Many high quality poems are rejected out of necessity. Theme is one way to elevate a poem above the rest.

Journals have audiences. Audiences have preferences.

Literary journals and mainstream magazines have audiences that are looking for particular things in the work they read. Any editor worth their salt knows that audience and has some sense of what their audience is looking for. The preference might relate to style, accessibility, use of figurative language, length of each piece, and/or theme.

Slush pile readers, including editors, have experiences that impact their selection decisions.

Who hasn’t read a poem, story, or essay and thought, “What the hell was that about?” Anyone reading work for possible publication has had life experiences that will give them the ability to relate or the inability to relate to the work they’re reading. When a poet writes something new, the poet’s personal experience impacts how they present the information. This experience is largely cultural (and I’m not referring just to race or ethnicity here). Slush pile readers and editors also have experiences that impact the way they interpret things that they read. The task of the poet writing for publication, beyond writing something beautiful, is to allow their personal experience to transcend in a way that can also reflect others’ personal experiences. This middle ground is where selection actually happens.

But the number one reason that getting poetry published isn’t really about quality is simply this: Quality is subjective.

There are three realities in poetry that can take a while to accept. First, while there might be a few wrong ways to write a poem, there are no right ways. Second, readers are human and have stylistic preferences. Finally, there is no single definition of a “quality poem.” The person who loves Wallace Stevens’ work has a different stylistic preference than the person who loves Mary Oliver’s work. Consider these two facts:

  1. The most well-known poet in America is Dr. Seuss.
  2. In 1968, Rod McKuen sold more than 1 million copies of his poetry books.

On the one hand, Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books, so it makes sense that he would be more well-known than Billy Collins. At the same time, if editors were to use Dr. Seuss as guidance for what makes a ‘quality poem,’ readers would see a lot less free verse. Dr. Seuss’s success can’t be attributed to quality alone. He also utilized rhythm, humor, and theme.

Rod McKuen was actually a songwriter in the 1960s. His poetry books were big sellers, but few poets today look at his work and say, “Wow. I wish I’d written that.” But people liked it. An editor liked it. Readers liked it. To a large number of people, this was ‘quality poetry.’

Consider the stylistic differences between William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Robert Creeley. Going farther back, compare the work of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Looking at contemporary poets, look at Simon Perchik and Maya Angelou. Can we say that any of this work is ‘better’ or ‘higher quality’ than any of the others? We can and we do. But that judgment is based on our subjective preferences and if we seek to see our poetry published, we have to recognize that editors and slush pile readers and poetry consumers also have subjective preferences.

The good news for poets is that we can figure out those preferences by reading a few (or preferably several) issues of journals before we submit. There are a few—a very few—journals that are truly eclectic in their tastes (Cloudbank springs immediately to mind), but most are not. We don’t have to write for a particular audience, but we do have to submit to a particular audience if we’re writing for publication—and ‘quality’ is just one facet of that process, a facet firmly planted in the realm of opinion.

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